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.

Advertisements

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.

Lying With Chinese Characteristics

My last post about that special Chinese style bluntness that we’ve all grown to know and love reminded me of a theory I developed some time ago to explain another phenomena that I observed frequently.  If possible, I’d really like to get input from other people to see if my experience in this regard was unique or if I’m just flat out wrong. 

My first time in China was about 10 years ago and I lived in a small town in Yunnan province for two years.  When I say small, I mean small by Chinese standards.  I think the population was around 2-3 million people. It was considered to be rather “backwards” by many Chinese…people I talked to then and even more so now can’t fathom why I would have chosen that location for language study.  It was an awesome town with very little foreign influence, the population wasn’t super educated on average or very wealthy.  There was a school that I was going to, a small teacher’s training college full of students from some of Yunnan’s smallest and poorest places.  Now that the stage has been set, here’s what I began observing…lies…lots and lots of lies about the weirdest shit.  One friend lied about having a degree in chemistry, another lied about having attended music school, almost everyone lied about how much money they made, everyone lied about where their hometown was, some claimed to speak languages that they couldn’t.   I had another friend who was probably at least 40, but claimed to be 28.   The list goes on.  I can understand lying to make yourself look good, I’m sure most of us have done it.  The thing I can’t understand is lying about stuff that is so obviously a lie.  My friend with the “chemistry degree” worked as a fuwuyuan at a laundry mat.  The guy “from” Hong Kong couldn’t speak Cantonese.  People who claimed to make tons of money did not own cars or homes or have great jobs.  The woman who claimed to be 28 looked 50.  My point is, it was soooo obvious to EVERYONE that we were all caught up in this web of lies, but no one ever said anything about it.  No one challenged anyone else on these things…”If you have a chemistry degree, why don’t you work in a lab?”  “If you’re from Hong Kong, why do your parents live here and none of you speak Cantonese?”  “If you went to that awesome music academy, why are you a bartender?”  So on and so forth.  These questions were never asked by anyone.  I can’t assume that my friends were ALL stupid and just didn’t see what  was happening, so the only logical conclusion I could come to was that this was all part of an unspoken social contract.  As in, “I’m going to tell you that I make a million dollars a year, you’re all going to ignore my crappy rented apartment, and in turn I will pretend to believe that you are smart enough to have a chemistry degree and everyone will feel good about themselves.”  I never did this, but I have a sneaking suspicion that if I had tried to call anyone out, I would have been the bad guy for not following the rules and making them lose face, instead of the guy who actually told the lies.  

There were other foreigners who had a hard time with this.  Generally speaking, Americans tend to be a pretty trusting, naive group of people and I can understand why someone would be hurt when they found out that their Chinese friend lied to them about where their hometown was…that they were actually from some shit hole village in Guizhou instead of Kunming like they’d said.  I think we just really need to think about how important that little stuff is in the long run and kind of get over it.  My Chinese friends might lie to me about whether or not they went to college, but I know they will be there to tell me whenever I gain any amount of weight. 

I haven’t really run across this situation since being back in China for graduate school.  I’m not sure if it’s because I’m dealing with people who are mostly from China’s larger cities, they’re more educated, younger, more western influence, etc.  I really don’t know.  Maybe it’s a cultural difference between Yunnan and other places.  I’m curious to know if anyone else has observed this kind of thing and it what context it happened.  

Honesty with Chinese Characteristics

One of the things I found the most shocking when I first came to China was how appallingly honest Chinese people would be about some things…like telling me how fat I was.  It seemed to come up in conversation so much that it was almost like the Chinese version of talking about some baseball team when you run out of stuff to say.  Actually, comments about my appearance in general were quite frequent – how bad my skin was, the size of my feet (huge, apparently), and anything else the speaker wanted to bring up.  To be fair, nothing they said was wrong…I had cystic acne and was fatter than was probably healthy, but Americans typically just don’t say that kind of thing to one another.  Upon seeing a friend after an absence, the first thing out of my mouth will never be “Look how fat you got!”  A close Chinese friend once told me “Your boobs are too small for someone as fat as you.”  That one still tops my list of “worst insults ever.”  Adjusting to this kind of bluntness was a long, torturous process.  The thing is, Chinese people don’t do this to be rude.  Making a statement of fact like “you got fat” is simply that – an obvious remark about an obvious, true fact.  A Chinese friend may say “Are you sure you want to eat that?  You’ve gained a lot of weight recently.”  They don’t do it to make you feel bad about yourself, they do it to be helpful, out of a sense of “you’re my friend so I’m going to draw your attention to the fact that you’re fat so you can stop pigging out and fix it.”  Now, when a Chinese person tells me I’m fat (I’m not) I just say “yep, you too” then we can talk about how they got fat instead of how I got fat.  It’s all about the art of deflection.

A rather advanced form of the “appallingly honest assessment of other people” is the “appallingly honest (but subjective) comparison between two or more foreigners.”  This is a situation where typically two or more foreigners end up at an event with a group of Chinese people and for some reason, it always happens while everyone is seated around a table.  I specify foreigners because I’ve never seen Chinese people be the victims of an “an appallingly honest (but subjective) comparison.”  What happens is everyone will be sitting there, eating or whatever and suddenly there will be a lull in conversation (we’ve probably already been discussing the fact that we are foreigners) at which point, someone feels obligated to make a statement like “that one is skinnier than that one.”  Then another person follows up with something like “yeah, but that one is younger,” then “that one’s Chinese is better…”  then “I actually think that one is prettier” and so on and so on.  Meanwhile, the two foreigners sit there feeling weird and wondering how to put a stop to it.  You can’t.  There’s no stopping the comparison until the table has come to a consensus as to which foreigner “wins.”  These comparisons suck and have the potential to destroy lives and relationships.  There are a couple of ways to brace yourselves for these situations, which are inevitable, by the way.

1. Never go to events or out with groups of Chinese people with other foreigners, unless you can vouch for all Chinese people involved and know that none of them will be weird about having foreigners around.  You risk being labeled “one of those foreigners who likes to be the center of attention.”

2. Have a wing man – a friend who is fully aware of the risks involved going into a situation like this.  Both people need to have a thick skin and not be the type to take it personally if they don’t win the comparison, or let it affect your friendship.

3. View these opportunities as a Hunger Games kind of thing and only hang out with foreigners who are worthy adversaries.  Aim to win the comparison every time, without regard for the damage done to personal relationships.  The only rule is you can’t be a little bitch about if if you lose the comparison.    This is not recommended.

I personally think that the wing man approach is the best way to go, although finding a qualified wing man can be tricky.  The “appallingly honest (but subjective) comparison between two or more foreigners” gets really personal, really fast. You gotta bring your game face.

The “L” Word

Not so many years ago, it was common for Americans to use the “N” word to refer to African Americans.  I saw the movie “The Butler” over the summer when I was back in the states and that word was used frequently throughout the movie.  The first time I heard it, it caught me off guard and I physically flinched in reaction to hearing that word, which has become incredibly taboo in a relatively short amount of time.  By the end of the movie, I barely noticed it anymore.  The interesting thing about the “N” word is that back in the day when white people used it, it was just the word that you used to refer to black people.  White people themselves (according to my grandparents) didn’t think it was offensive at all, that’s just what you called them.  Now, using that word would likely get you punched in the face (at least where I’m from), unless you yourself are black – then it’s totally cool to call yourself or your friends by the “N” word.  I don’t care, I get it – it’s that whole “nobody can make fun of us except us” mentality and I can appreciate that.  Where am I going with all of this? I think anyone who has been in China for awhile probably already knows.  The term “lao wai” (老外) is in many ways, similar to the “N” word.  I would never argue that “lao wai” is anywhere near as offensive, since as you can see, I dare to write it out instead of referring to it as the “L” word.  Never mind the fact that lao wai have never been forced into slavery in China, or had to endure extreme deprivation of human rights and then go through the Civil Rights Movement.  I can’t say that I relate to any of that.  I believe the two terms are similar in that many Chinese people who throw it around will insist that it’s not offensive and that it’s just a cute/silly word for “foreigner” IN SPITE of the fact that many of us are actually offended by it to varying degrees.  I find the term rather offensive and here’s why.

If you think about the circumstances in which Chinese people use the term “lao wai” versus “wai guo ren” – foreigner (外国人) or “wai guo peng you” -foreign friend (外国朋友), I believe you will see a pattern emerge.  I just sat through a 2 hour lecture on research methods in a room of mixed Chinese and international students and the lecturer continuously referred to us as “lao wai” when making assumptions that we couldn’t understand him, or that we didn’t understand China.  He talked about sensitive research topics and used the term “lao wai” to mention the fact that many foreigners come to China and because they don’t know anything, they get into trouble when trying to research things they don’t really understand.  The foreigners in the room all took this to be quite condescending, especially since the entire premise of our school is cultural exchange and has pretty stiff language requirements to get into.  The situation that he kept using the word in assumed a relatively high level of ignorance, especially given that we were sitting in a room located in….CHINA.  However, any formal event – a graduation or other ceremony, the speakers will always use the terms “wai guo ren” or “wai guo peng you” because they’re trying to be polite and formal.  Other times that you may hear the word “lao wai” are when for example random people are laughing and pointing at you on the street or when someone is really trying to emphasize the differences between “we Chinese” and foreigners.  People tend to avoid using “lao wai” when they think we understand them as well, which I believe means that they are (subconsciously?) acknowledging the fact that maybe we do know something about China or whatever is being discussed.

Another reason why I find this word to be offensive is because you almost never hear it used to refer to foreigners of Asian descent.  Granted, there are other terms for Japanese people or Koreans, but those words are deliberate and it is no secret that they are meant to be offensive.  When I was studying in Kunming, I once had someone ask me “how many lao wai are in your class?”  I answered “8” because that’s how many people were in my class and we were all foreigners.  The person pressed further by asking “NO, I mean how many lao wai…like you?” I was confused and again answered “8” and tried to explain that everyone in my class was foreign.  The person became frustrated and asked me what countries my classmates were from an I answered “Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Japan” and was then informed that I was in fact, the only lao wai in the class.  In case you didn’t know, lao wai is only for white people and black people.  I personally think this is because in the minds of the Chinese, we are so much more different from them than other Asians.  Other Asians at least come from roughly the same region, they have Buddhism, Confucian backgrounds, etc, so they aren’t REAL “lao wai.”

For anyone who watches Chinese TV or news, or reads newspapers, you would again, notice key differences in when speakers use the terms “lao wai” or “wai guo ren/peng you.”  In sitcoms or soap operas where the foreigner is filling the role of “bungling idiot foreigner who can’t do anything for themselves” (usually the case), the word will more than likely be “lao wai.”  On news programs, due to the formality, it’s usually “wai guo ren.” In newspapers it depends on what said foreigner has done.  If it was something negative, like when that British guy tried to rape a Chinese girl on the street about 18 months ago, the headlines were all about the  “lao wai” who thinks he can rape Chinese women on the street.  When it’s something positive or even neutral, it’s going to be “wai guo ren.”  A few weeks ago, a couple of American women intervened when an irate passenger on a bus began beating up the bus driver because he was angry about the traffic and how slow they were going.  The other Chinese on the bus, did nothing (well, someone recorded it with their phone) and the two “wai guo peng you” held the man down and lectured him on why it’s not ok to beat up bus drivers and comforted the bus driver until police got there.  I just did a quick google search of “wai guo ren” and “lao wai” using Chinese characters and the difference in results (text and pictures) backs this theory up. Interesting, yes?

Last piece of evidence-  Next time you see Chinese tourists in your home country, call them “lao wai” and see what they do.  They don’t like it.  If it’s not an offensive term used only for white people or black people, then what’s the problem, Chinese people?  I’m not sure I understand…

I often will ask Chinese people not to use “lao wai” and they frequently get kind of defensive about it, saying things like “What?  it’s not a big deal, I didn’t mean anything by it, don’t be so sensitive.”  I’m sure white Americans would have said the same thing 60 years ago (or bitch slapped someone for back talking).  Sometimes when I bring this subject up, other foreigners will also tell me that I’m being too sensitive.  I think they’re actually missing the point and not understanding the true connotation of the word and I also think that more people should insist that the word not be used.  However, similar to the “N” word, I think it’s one of those things that only people who are members of the group can use casually to refer to one another.

Liu De Hua is an Angel Sent to Earth to Grace Us with his Cheekbones and Abs

I found this pic on the internet.

I found this pic on the internet.

Liu De Hua, also known as Andy Lau is a 52 year old Chinese (Hong Kong) man who can turn crowds of grown ass women into blubbering school girls.  I’m no exception.  I’ve watched most of his movies, but haven’t actually listened to a lot of his music because you can’t see his abs when you listen to his music, unless you’re at one of his concerts…oh, funny you should mention Liu De Hua concerts because I went to one last night!  Liu De Hua did his “Always” show this weekend and the only reason I knew about this was because I was procrastinating on my homework one night a few weeks ago and got on Douban to see what was going on around town.  The tickets were too expensive for the likes of me – by the time I found out about the concert the only tickets left were 1680 RMB. Last night, two friends and I decided (well, I bullied them into it) to head out to the concert and see what the situation was.  It was a mad house!  There were hundreds (thousands?) of people trying to talk their way into the concert, there were tons of scalpers selling mostly fake tickets, people crying because they couldn’t get in and the cops were rounding up scalpers and people with fake tickets right and left.  It was crazy.  There was only one main door into the stadium and it was on lock down, there were dozens of cops guarding it and they were in no mood for joking around.  I talked to a police officer about the scalpers to confirm that the tickets they were selling were fake and he told me that not only were they fake, but I might get taken in if I tried to get in with one.  I wasn’t going to pay a scalper anyway, they all wanted 1000 RMB or more for the tickets.  We milled about for a bit, but found out that the concert was sold out already.  Chinese people were surprised to see us there and kept asking one another “老外也喜欢刘德华吗?”  (Foreigners like Liu De Hua too?)  We decided to try a different door where maybe the security was more lax.  We walked around to the back of the stadium and found 3 cops standing around laughing and joking.  There was a Chinese girl with them who had paid 900 RMB for a fake ticket and was trying to get them to let her in anyway.  She was close to tears when I walked up and started talking to the cops about the concert and wondering if there was any way that I might possibly be able to get some tickets.  The oldest cop, a guy probably in his late 50s said he would check on it for me.  At this point I kind of felt bad because the Chinese girl had been there first and they wouldn’t help her.  The only reason he was willing to use his guanxi to get tickets for me is because I’m a foreigner.  However, I consider this to be compensation for the bullshit I put up with every day (aka being stared at constantly and being treated like a free traveling English class).  My new best friend, Mr. Jingcha was able to secure us two tickets.  We graciously accepted.  Mr. Jingcha then asked for my phone number and concessions had to be made at this point, so I took one for the team and gave him my number.  He then loaded us up in his cop car and drove us to the front entrance where we picked up our tickets.  We tried again to get the cops at the front to let all of us in, despite only having two tickets, but they weren’t having it.  Two of us went in and our other friend waited out front while we continued to search for a way to get him in.  Mr. Jingcha texted me and said he was going back for our buddy and ended up taking him on a ride along where they picked up what they thought was a drunk guy, threw him in the back seat with my friend and then he turned out to be a mentally disabled person who was distraught over having purchased a fake ticket and was in fact, not a drunk.  They took him back to the station and made my buddy smoke cigarettes with them until the head cop came down and gave him another ticket they had scrounged up for him.  All 3 of us managed to make it in for at least the last 45 minutes of the concert for free.  Liu De Hua was amazing and the stage, props and dancers were all wonderful too.  He made a great speech at the end of his performance about how much he loved all of his fans and said “No matter where you are, no matter where I am, my love will always be at your side.”  Liu De Hua is the nicest guy ever.  Everyone was going crazy.  The Chinese fans were hilarious.  Everyone had glowing mouse ears, glowing watches and glow sticks that they were waving around. At one point in his speech, Liu De Hua said “There are people more handsome than me” and all the girls shouted “NO THERE AREN’T!”  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t join in.  There were people there of all ages, from elderly people to children, and everyone was really into it, including all the dudes.  Liu De Hua really does appeal to all age groups.  At the end of the night, as if it wasn’t awesome enough already, we got concert tees for 20 RMB!

My new best friend, Mr. Jingcha has been texting and hitting me up on weixin all day.  This could be a problem.  I kind of thought this might happen (not my first trip to the rodeo), but it’s always a little complicated. He now wants to treat us all to dinner and earlier today he asked me to teach him English.  I certainly don’t want to teach English to anyone or be anyone’s 小三 (mistress).  This is a delicate situation and the American in me doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.  The Chinese in me tells me to just ignore the guy since I never promised anything in return.  I guess I’ll probably just bring some big dude along with me to dinner some night and say he’s my husband (since my real husband is thousands of miles away). Hopefully that should put an end to it.  I don’t mind helping someone out and giving them some face every now and again, but it’s tricky when you don’t know whether or not they’re a creep monster.

Thamestown – a Chinese Ghost Town

Earlier this week I completed one of the things on my “40 Before 40” list.  I’ve read loads of articles about China’s Ghost Towns, which are housing developments typically created for the super rich that include luxury housing, retail space and parks.  They’re also usually built in very inconvenient locations, way on the outskirts of a city and no where near people’s jobs.  I went to Thamestown on the edge of Shanghai with some friends and we spent almost an hour on the subway before we got there and still had to take a 15 minute taxi ride from the subway station, so it’s definitely not a desirable location by Chinese standards.  The village was modeled after a British city and is full of cliches and British architecture with Chinese characteristics.  It also wasn’t exactly what I would call a ghost town.  There were tons of people there.  Granted, none of them lived there, but it wasn’t even close to empty.  Most of the people were there to take wedding pictures or to rent bicycles and ride around enjoying the scenery.  Most of the stores were empty.  There were a few cafes that looked like they were in business, but a majority of the businesses were wedding photography studios.  Most of the landscaping hadn’t been maintained well, there were squaters in some of the shops and even though they wouldn’t let us into the residential area, we could tell that every visible home was empty.  The shutters were falling off, the paint was peeling, yards were overgrown, etc.  Thamestown employs a small army of migrant workers to walk around picking up after the tourists and they seemed to be the only ones who actually live there.

I didn’t know what to think about it.  Obviously, Thamestown is ridiculous.  It looked like a bunch of Chinese people who had seen “Mary Poppins” a few times too many got together and decided how Britain might look.  Then someone invested a crap ton of RMB into this project (probably the government) and now it’s just sitting there decaying and serving as a backdrop for photos.  Maybe the investment will pay off if Shanghai’s city center hurries up and expands enough to encompass Thamestown, but no one is maintaining the place in the meantime, so I suspect that the more likely outcome is that it will sit there for a few more years until the government decides to start it all over again.  They’ll tear down Thamestown and rebuild something just as unnecessary just so they can provide construction jobs for migrant workers and inflate their GDP.  A lot of people are becoming very wealthy from this constant cycle of build, tear down, build, but in the long run, it’s doing more harm than good.  Constant construction creates a lot of waste and demand for materials, as well as air and noise pollution. Since wealthy developers and the government (who claims to be trying to control the price of housing) are generally one and the same, I believe that this cycle also leads to increases in the cost of housing.  I hear there’s a fake Paris around here somewhere.  Maybe I need to check that out.

The inside of this church was weird.  I can't quite put my finger on why.  It was evident that it was never used for anything remotely churchy and the stained glass was fake.

The inside of this church was weird. I can’t quite put my finger on why. It was evident that it was never used for anything remotely churchy and the stained glass was fake.

_MG_1689

Harry Potter

Harry Potter

Princess Diana.  How else would you know it was supposed to be Britain?

Princess Diana. How else would you know it was supposed to be Britain?

The CCTV camera is unintentionally accurate.

The CCTV camera is unintentionally accurate.

This guy really tied it all together.

This guy really tied it all together.

_MG_1649 _MG_1646

This outfit will be hard to explain to her future children.

This outfit will be hard to explain to her future children.

_MG_1590

Pushing and Shoving and All That Fun Stuff

Expats from western countries typically fall into two basic categories in China.  The first category is the newbs, people who haven’t been here for too long.  They’re usually so excited to be here and blinded by the image of China that they’ve had in their heads for so long that they can’t see anything negative about the country.  Nothing about living here annoys them because everything is cute or quaint or it’s “just their culture” and they’re eager to accept anything, no matter how gross or different from their own country.  Then something happens…I don’t know when it happens, it depends on the person, but it’s like a chink in the armor appears and it starts with one little complaint like “I can’t stand people spitting everywhere!” and grows until this bright eyed, bushy tailed lover of China moves into category 2 and will openly admit to the things here that bother him or her.  They may even have days where the thought of leaving their apartment and dealing with outside just seems like an insurmountable task, so they just stay in.  It’s ok.  This place is stressful!  I know I have days like that and after a day of holing up in my room, watching American TV and not dealing with the chaos outside, I feel ready to handle it again.  One of the things that often is a huge contributing factor to having an “I hate China day” is how inconsiderate people are out on the street.  Yesterday, I was trying to exit a narrow door into a lobby and there was a young man walking ahead of me.  Ahead I could see a 400 year old Chinese man slowly coming towards us, heading to the door and he was just about to step through it when the young man ahead of me saw the old man, quickly evaluated how slow he was going and realized that it might waste 4 seconds of his time if he had to stop and wait for him to go through the door first and instead, he sped up and barreled through the door, shoving into this old man so he could go first.  The old man didn’t say anything.  He caught his balance and then he looked up and saw me coming and he physically braced himself as if he thought I was going to be next to slam into him.  He shut his eyes and tightened up his body and stood there waiting for impact.  This is a man who is used to this.  Kinda funny considering how the Chinese always pat themselves on the back for how much respect they have for their elders.  Obviously, I didn’t run into the guy.  I stopped and waved him through the door and he smiled at me and said “thank you” about 20 times.  It wasn’t anything worth being thanked for, it’s called being a person.

I see crap like this all the time.  People getting off an escalator and just stopping at the top to check their phone while 100 people behind them try to get around him and go on with their day, a guy who pulls his bike out into the sidewalk and completely blocks oncoming foot traffic while he makes a call or digs through his bag, cars parked on the sidewalks, people cutting each other off in cars, not watching for pedestrians on their motorcycles, cutting in line, not looking where they spit (I’ve been on the receiving end of that more times than I care to count), the people who push and shove their way onto an elevator or subway before anyone else has had the chance to get off…this list could go on for miles and this is all stuff I see every day within the first 50 meters of leaving my apartment.  It’s incredibly frustrating to see and deal with every day.  It’s hard not to sometimes think “WTF is wrong with these people??”  Collective society, my ass.  A friend and I had a long discussion the other day and we came up with two possible theories to explain this behavior.

1. The Ignorance is Bliss Theory-

Can you imagine what it would be like to grow up in a decent sized city in China?  It’s soo noisy!  Construction, cars honking, people yelling, etc.  You can literally never get a moment’s peace and quiet.  There is always noise.  Also, it’s incredibly crowded.  Every where you go, you’re jam packed up against 2000 other people – walking, in the subway, in stores, eating at a restaurant.  You are almost constantly in physical contact with strangers.  I suspect that this crowded, noisy state isn’t exactly the condition that’s most natural to mankind.  I believe that people need peace and quiet and time to themselves to just be and that is completely impossible here. I think that maybe the guy who just puts in his headphones and goes meandering down the street, cutting people off, not looking who he might bump into and getting in the way of other pedestrians or cyclists is perhaps subconsciously trying to achieve a sense of being alone, artificially experiencing a lack of crowding or noise (other than his music), it’s perhaps a way of regrouping similar to my “I hate China days” when I just stay in my apartment and refuse to come out.

2. The Great Depression Theory

My friend whom I was discussing this with doesn’t buy into the above theory at all.  He thinks that the seemingly rude behavior is learned behavior passed down from the generations who experienced the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural revolution and periods of famine and shortage that were all too common just a few decades ago in China.  I think he may have something here.  We both discussed how we had picked up habits from our parents who had learned them from their parents who started doing said habit during the Great Depression…now it’s just something we do because “it’s how it’s always been done” whereas our grandparents began doing things a certain way out of necessity.  It’s possible that some of the rude behavior is borne out of habits picked up from older generations who had to compete for goods and services out of necessity, when not getting what you needed meant starvation for your family.  I think that this is a pretty interesting theory, but I suspect that may not be the case for everyone.  My husband’s family has always been rather well-off and for them, the Great Depression was a thing happening to other people.  Some of the habits that I have learned from my family who suffered terribly during that time, he finds really strange.  In fact, I hadn’t even known that anything I was doing wasn’t the norm in every household until we began living together and he finally asked me about it (these habits mostly consist of reusing things that most people would consider disposable and tricks to extend the life of produce or even use it after it’s gone bad).  So, the rude behavior can’t be learned behavior for every single person, since there were families who had it quite good during those harsh times and there was no need to compete for some families.  I think that the most likely explanation is some combination of our two theories, plus the fact that there are just so damn many people here (especially since the population booms that happened mostly during the 70s and 80s) that people don’t see how being the one considerate person (if everyone else is still looking out for themselves) will possibly get them anywhere.  It won’t.  We’ve probably all seen that new foreigner who didn’t want to shove people to get off the subway and missed their stop.  You have to be a bit of a rude asshole to get anything done around here.  It’s too bad that everyone can’t just agree to stop cutting in line and shoving their way onto the subway before letting people off because in reality, being polite actually saves everyone time and makes everything more efficient when simple stuff like waiting in line at the bank isn’t a war zone.  Just my two cents.  Not that anyone asked.