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.

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.

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.

South Korea isn’t Weird

Most people in China have this week off in honor of National Day, the founding of the PRC on Oct 1, 1949.  Many people choose to travel within China during this week, but anyone with common sense does what I did – flee the country.  Trying to travel in China during mass holidays is something that I find to be more and more intolerable the older I get.  I just can’t bring myself to do it anymore.  As such, I booked a ticket to Seoul, Korea for the week with the dual purpose of visiting my little sister and doing some research for my thesis.

Korea keeps catching me off guard.  I’ve been here several times before, but after being in China for so long and coming here and still being surrounded by Asian faces (racist, I know), I still can’t get used to the fact that the people are so different.  I took the subway into Seoul for a meeting the other day and it was a long trip, about 2.5 hours each way.  Not one weird thing happened to me the entire time.  I got on the subway and read quietly without being disturbed by anyone wanting to practice their Engrish, no one relieved themselves on the train, no weirdos came to stand next to me to read over my shoulder or touch me, no one stared at me, just basically everyone acted normal.  Not a single person was weird about the fact that I’m not from around here.  For anyone who hasn’t spent a significant amount of time in China, the fact that I’m even writing this probably doesn’t make any sense.  Let’s put it into perspective.  The day before I left China to fly here, I was approached by 5 random people who wanted to practice Engrish with me, a guy sat next to me on the subway and stared intently right at my face for his entire ride, a woman followed me around a convenience store to see what I was buying, and a group of children, egged on by their parents laughed and pointed at the laowai just minding her business walking down the street.  That’s what I mean by “acting weird” about foreigners.  I don’t live in a small town and there are tons of foreigners here, so I’m really not sure why we’re not over the thrill of white people yet.  Another thing about Korea, when I go into a restaurant with my sister they don’t try to ask you in English whether or not you’re ok with chopsticks.  They always try Korean first and when that fails, they switch to English.  No one has even tried to give us forks instead of chopsticks.  The attitude seems to be “Well, you’re in Korea, so maybe you know some Korean and have learned to use chopsticks” instead of in China where the attitude most of the time is “there is no way a white person knows our language or can use chopsticks because white people don’t understand China!”   Everywhere that we’ve visited, people have always approached us with an open mind about how the communication was going to happen.  In China, when you go into a store or something, all of the employees do this thing where they look around in a panic thinking “oh shit, I don’t remember any English!” and sometimes they ignore you altogether because there is just no way that communication is going to happen.  I like how no matter what, Korean people will engage you and do their best to understand and help answer your questions.  I got confused about the subway the other day when I was trying to get back from Seoul and I would stop random people to try and ask and usually I could make myself understood, but some people would pull out their phones, open some translating app and give it to me to type in what I was trying to say.  They would read the translation and then type in their answer and give it to me to read the English.  I was honestly quite shocked that anyone would actually take the time to do that.  Some people would even walk me to where I was supposed to be (I got lost a lot) and then go on their way.  In China, it’s easier for me to ask directions since I can speak Chinese, but even given that, sometimes when I approach a person, before I can even say anything, they wave me off and walk away while saying “I don’t speak English!”

I’ve really enjoyed every trip I’ve made to Korea, I love the food, the culture, there’s so much to do and see here, but I think my favorite thing about Korea is the people.  It’s not entirely fair to compare China and Korea perhaps, but it’s hard not to.  I live in China and deal with a lot of weirdness from the people every single day and then I come here and it’s like I’m just another person in the crowd.  If I had to guess, the difference comes from the fact that foreigners, specifically Americans have had a pretty strong presence in Korea since the early 1950s.  Old people then maybe would have been weird about it, but their kids and grandchildren all grew up with foreigners hanging around as the norm.  Our presence is seen virtually everywhere with all of the military bases.  I’ve visited the Korean country side and even there, no one was weird about it (I also think that it’s considered rude to stare in Korean culture, unlike in China).  Whereas in China, foreigners were mostly kicked out of the country during the Qing Dynasty and we didn’t start making a solid appearance again until the early 80s when China opened up again.  So that means that the first generation to really grow up with foreigners around are the people aged about 30 and under, everyone else remembers a time when we weren’t allowed into the country and when there was actually propaganda against the West, especially the US. You could even argue that there wasn’t a widespread presence of foreigners (outside of large cities like Beijing and Shanghai) until the 90s.  If Korea is any indication, then we should expect the Chinese to stop being weirded out by us in about 50 years.  I’d like to see the day when that happens!

 

Shanghai Calling 纽约客@上海 – The Movie!

This is not my photo.  I found it on the internet.  Daniel Henney is pretty hot.

This is not my photo. I found it on the internet. Daniel Henney is pretty hot.

Basic synopsis:

A slick and immoral American lawyer, Sam Chao (Daniel Henney) is sent to Shanghai to head up the company’s Shanghai law office.  Upon his arrival in Shanghai, he is greeted by Amanda (Eliza Coupe), a relocation specialist who’s job it is to help him settle in.  Since this movie takes place in China, a very relevant part of the story line is the fact that Sam Chao is an ABC who can’t speak Chinese, whereas Amanda is a blonde haired, blue eyed American who can, thereby making this not only a romantic comedy, but a romantic comedy that makes fun of all the cliches that go along with Sam and Amanda’s linguistic situation.  Chinese people all insist on speaking to Sam in Chinese, waitresses give Amanda the Chinglish menu, etc etc – it’s all funny because it’s true.  Aside from the love story, there’s a lot more going on in the movie.  Via Fang Fang, Sam’s assistant, the movie takes a look at the social and economic pressure put on young Chinese people.  The complexity of the Chinese legal system and prevalent use of guanxi is also touched on in how Sam tries to deal with a legal suit before knowing anything about China’s 国情 and after refusing to take Fang Fang’s advice on the matter.  Without giving too much away, the lawsuit that Sam is dealing with would have been an easy one in which to make the Chinese out to be the bad guys, but that isn’t the case here.  I also really enjoyed how the movie made fun of some of the “foreigner in China” cliches – the skeezy English teacher, the arrogant business man who thinks Chinese people don’t know anything, the foreigner who thinks he’s Chinese, and the I’m never going back, these are my people guy.

Shanghai Calling got some pretty harsh reviews online.  I however, really like this movie.  I suspect that the people who didn’t like it were people who aren’t in on the joke of what it’s like to be a foreigner in China.  I made my husband watch the movie with me and he’s never been to China.  We had to pause it a few times so I could explain something that seemed obvious to me, but made no sense to him.  Shanghai Calling’s only failing perhaps is that a wider audience wasn’t taken into consideration, but I think it wouldn’t have been as good if they had done that.

Shanghai Calling trailer 

One last thing that I thought was interesting from a linguistic standpoint was the technique that Eliza Coupe’s accent coach, Cheng Yang Yang used to “teach” her Chinese.  Eliza Coupe’s character didn’t speak a lot of Chinese in the movie, but enough to judge how well said technique worked.  Cheng Yang Yang obviously didn’t need Eliza to actually know Chinese, she just needed to be able to get through her lines, basically using memorization. The first thing Cheng Yang Yang did was to transcribe her lines from Chinese into a kind of Englishized pinyin.  For example, “ni xiang chi shenme” became “knee shee-ahng chir shun muh.” She then helped Eliza refine the pronunciation a little and then for the tones, she used a melody and had Eliza put the melody onto the words she was saying.  According to Cheng Yang Yang, at this point Eliza “immediately sounded like a native Chinese speaker!” Ok, well…Eliza didn’t sound like a native speaker, not even a little bit.  She definitely sounded like an American, with a heavy accent and some awkward pauses. I wouldn’t say the technique worked that well and it sounds like a lot of work, I doubt that any time was saved by teaching Eliza her lines this way.  Since Eliza’s character in the movie didn’t begin learning Chinese until college, it’s normal that she would have an accent.  I probably wouldn’t even really have an opinion on Eliza’s Chinese, except that Cheng Yang Yang made such a big deal advertising this technique.  Given all the fanfare, I would have expected better results. It was still a great movie.

Cheng Yang Yang’s technique

No, I’m not an English teacher

Trip with the Germans - 75

Living in China as a white girl isn’t easy. Maybe some people love the attention that one can receive merely for being white and I’ll admit that there are some perks.  For example, it’s difficult to go to a bar or a club and not have friendly Chinese people approach you for some conversation and then offer to buy you drinks (this can be dangerous, more on that another time).  Or when you enter a store, the sales clerks will most likely be extra eager to please you because they want to make a good impression.  Some Chinese people also like to take pictures of foreigners, sometimes they’ll ask, but usually they just try to be sneaky about it, which I personally don’t appreciate at all.  Chinese people are friendly, warm, and full of compliments generally speaking, but that tendency becomes somewhat amplified when a Chinese person is eager to make friends with a foreigner for whatever reason.  Some foreigners regard all of this behavior as some kind of rock star status and really enjoy it.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t on occasion pull the “white card.”  Sometimes I pretend not to understand Chinese if it’s to my advantage not to.  Other times I exploit the Chinese fear of losing face in front of foreigners to receive better service at a hotel or a restaurant.  I know, I’m a terrible person.  Moving on.

The flip side to all of this special treatment is the racism I deal with on a daily basis.  Yes, I am a white girl and I LIVE on the receiving end of racism.  I’m not talking about the active racism that people normally think of when they think about racism, although I have on very rare occasions been spit on or called names by a Chinese person because of my blinding whiteness.  What I’m referring to is passive racism.  It’s the little stuff like eating at a restaurant and a waitress commenting “oh, you can use chopsticks!” Or constantly overhearing people talk about me and saying things like “She’s an English teacher” or “She’s Russian” or one time I overheard a guy talking to his girlfriend about how badly I was dressed and then assuring his girlfriend that there was no way I could understand him.  I looked at him and I told him that I did in fact understand him and that he was being very rude.  His response was only to laugh at me and get out of the elevator.  Another way in which passive racism asserts itself is the long held belief among Chinese people that all foreigners are rich.  This is usually embodied by their constant attempts (I’m looking at you, Beijing taxi drivers) to squeeze more RMB out of us.  While I’m on this rant, I’m just going to mention how much I hate it when a Chinese person says something to me and either I didn’t hear or I’m thinking about my response and before I can say anything, they say “You don’t understand!” and start yelling for someone who can speak English (all white people speak English, btw) or start walking away.  Now…maybe all of this sounds trivial to you, but can you imagine dealing with this every day, all day, regardless of what you’re trying to do?  You’re trying to order food and the waitress won’t come take your order because she assumes you can’t speak Chinese.  You’re lost and you want to ask for directions, but again, no one will stop to speak with you because of how you look.  I am a graduate student with several years of solid work experience and still, the only job Chinese people think I’m capable of doing in their country is teaching English.  What if we took these scenarios and had them take place in America?  Let’s say a Japanese-American is riding the subway and he overhears the following conversation:

child: “Dad, what kind of person is that?”

father: “She’s Chinese and works at a laundromat in China town”

child: “Can I go talk to her?”

father: “You’ll have to talk to her in Chinese because she can’t speak English.”

Whoa!  How racist is that??  Yet, I overhear comparable conversations about me all the time.  I wish I had a yuan for every Chinese person who assumes I’m a Russian English teacher, which unless I happen to be a Russian who speaks amazing English, that doesn’t even make sense.  Could you imagine what would happen if an Asian person walked into a Denny’s and was told to go away because the restaurant didn’t have any chopsticks?  LOL.  I imagine a lawsuit would be quick to follow.  That happened to me too, except I was turned away due to a lack of forks.

Actually, I kind of think that even the special treatment I mentioned before is a type of racism.  As far as I’m concerned, any treatment that you receive because of your race that sets you apart from everyone else is racism.  What would be awesome would be if Chinese people could just treat foreigners like equals.  Just don’t assume anything when having to deal with us…don’t assume that we’re from a certain country, don’t assume what our job is, don’t assume what languages we can/can’t speak, don’t assume that we can’t use chopsticks and don’t assume that we’re ok with paying any price that isn’t what everyone else is paying for an item or a service.  For the love of God, stop taking pictures of us like we’re zoo animals!  Just act like we’re all fellow human beings and call it good.  When I was younger I had naive dreams of becoming Chinese (some of you know what I mean), I did all that cliche crap that so many foreigners do in order to complete the transformation – tai chi, gu zheng lessons, trying to cook Chinese food in my house, learning calligraphy, etc etc before finally realizing that I will never be Chinese or regarded as such.  You know what?  That’s alright.  I’m American and there are simply some Chinese things that I will no longer force myself to do such as pretending to like bai jiu or eating chicken feet.  Nope.  Not gonna do it.  There are inherent differences between myself and Chinese people and that’s ok.  All I ask is to be given the status of an equal, not worse than or better than, just equal.