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Archive for the category “Culture”

Survey Says… Oops

Cross-posted at the unmothballed Mutant Palm.

Max Fisher at The Washington Post ran a blog post last week featuring a world map of “racial tolerance” based on data from the World Values Survey (WVS), and it didn’t take long before the collective peer review power of Tufts University and Reddit found at least two examples of “fat fingers” where a “no, I don’t mind living next to other races” was mistakenly swapped with a “yes, I’m totally racist when it comes to choosing neighbors” for Bangladesh and Hong Kong, thanks to mistranslation and poor survey design. Others have pointed out the inherent flaw in assuming that the construct of “race” is universal and that news organizations’ need to feed the content beast creates a game of telephone where complex data is oversimplified and misinterpreted without real scrutiny.

I first encountered the WVS last year in my coursework on International Librarianship, where Geert Hofstede’s book Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind was used as a primary text and it served as solid jumping-off point for discussion. Hofstede is the granddaddy of cross-cultural studies quants, building a cross-cultural theory and corporate consulting brand out of data he developed as head of HR for IBM Europe in the 1960s, the same time Robert McNamara was using IBM mainframes to plot effective firebombing raids of Japan. Those were the salad days for punchcards. Like the WVS, Hofstede has survey datasets from dozens of countries over decades from which he and others glean tantalizing correlations (which so easily slip towards causation) between conceptual frameworks that “emerge” from the data (individualism vs. collectivism, for example) and GDP, economic growth, war, etc. At first, the book was fascinating as an American living in China – “wow, this validates so many things I anecdotally observe with hard data!” By the end of the book, however, I was completely disenthralled. The assumptions, generalizations, and seeming contradictions piled up in a doomed effort to render “national culture,” if such a thing is quantifiable, legible (yes, I’m finally reading Scott’s Seeing Like a State), looking like nothing more than the psychologist and sociologist equivalent to the old hack joke “White people drive like this, but black people drive like that!” Unless you’re a committed professional like Michael Harris Bond (who developed the original Chinese Values Survey) who will spend years wrestling with the data and appreciating its limitations, you’re better off watching Russell Peters.

Greeted as Liberators

I recall it as being Sunday, March 17, 2003, that the administrative liaison called all six foreign English teachers to a meeting in one of our on-campus apartments, but it might have been Monday, since I also remember that the visit was precipitated by President George W. Bush’s 48-hour “High Noon” ultimatum for the Hussein family to leave Iraq or face invasion. There were six of us: three Americans, two Australians, and a Canadian, and for most of us it was our first year in China. A Chinese English teacher provided translation:

“You may have heard that your president” – the Australians and the Canadian immediately bristled – “has announced the United States will invade Iraq on Wednesday. We would like you to not go outside once the war begins. If you have any shopping to do, you can give us a list and we’ll get it for you.”

All of us had been at the school, a private K-12 headed by a former provincial deputy education minister that catered to cadre children, for little more than one semester. It was ostensibly modeled after Eton, or so they kept telling us, but as far as I could tell the similarities stopped at “expensive boarding school.” I had been in China for a total of five months, all in Urumqi save 24 hours in Beijing registering at the consulate and getting fleeced by an “art student.”

“First of all, three of us aren’t Americans,” said one of the Australians. “He’s not our president.” We had fair warning this discussion might happen, and decided to tease out exactly what the school was thinking. “Why don’t you want us to go out?”

“Well, it could be dangerous.”

“Why?” The answer was, after some deflection, basically “Muslims.” We refused to promise we wouldn’t leave campus, arguing that we weren’t going to hide in the school and that besides, we didn’t feel any threat. Eventually the administrator gave up on trying to hold us there, though they’d try again later when news of SARS belatedly reached the school. The fact was that every time we went out, we were often approached by Han and Uyghurs who were intrigued by foreigners or wanted to practice their English. And most of the Uyghurs, in my experience from 2002-2005, tended to view Westerners as a closer cousin than the Han. I heard more than once that “at least Americans believe in one God,” as opposed to the Han alternatives of atheistic Communism and overlapping polytheisms of Daoism, Buddhism, and traditional Chinese spirituality. I sometimes heard cruder, more dubious and flat-out racist theories as well, but the common denominator is that they could speak to a Westerner with less fear of getting in trouble. Reluctant and afraid to speak about religion, ethnic discrimination, politics or history with their Han Chinese neighbors, colleagues, and classmates, a fair number of Uyghur students, teachers, and professionals sought out Westerners to serve as sympathetic ears. In 2004, when pro-American feelings seemed to peak among the Uyghurs I met, a man in his 50s who loved to talk politics proclaimed in what seemed all seriousness “after Afghanistan and Iraq, George Bush will come to liberate us.”

While China’s version of affirmative action allowed Uyghurs to have more children and enter university with lower test scores, unspoken rules resulted in disadvantages in other arenas. One friend vented when, at university job fair, he was told “no minorities” before he even sat down. Another engaged in civil disobedience by inviting us to his home in Kashgar, where we only found out we had overstayed the number of days foreign house guests were allowed when all three of us were pulled into the police station. They took a long statement from him – who we were, where we met, what we did, where we would usually hang out, why we were here – and had him place his thumbprint and signature at the end while our passports were faxed to the head office for review. We chewed him out afterwards; we would never have come, or at least overstayed, if we knew it would get his family in trouble with the authorities. “My family decides who gets to stay in our home,” he said. Late one night at Fubar, an expat pub opened by friends near the center of town (now closed), with loud music blaring, a young Chinese woman at our table stood up, raised her glass and yelled “Fuck the Communist Party!” and proceeded to condemn half the Politboro Standing Committee. The young Uyghur man sitting next to her immediately stood up, raised his glass, and starting yelling “I love the Communist Party! I am a patriot! Long live the Party!” with panicked fear on his face. I don’t know if he ever went back to that bar again.

My Han friends and students, on the other hand, sometimes appeared incredibly disconnected from the Uyghur society around them. An entire university class of Han students (my English classes at the university level were almost entirely segregated, with Han students receiving better facilities and textbooks) didn’t know the Uyghur word for banmian (laghman), the staple noodle dish, the equivalent of going to UC San Diego and never learning the word “burrito.” I have lost count of how many times I heard a Han Chinese person express befuddlement at the idea that Uyghurs did not eat pork, and several occasions when someone was pressured to eat pork or drink alcohol by a superior within their company who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Han high school students eagerly took myself and another teacher on a tour of the city, only to refuse to join us in entering the Uyghur quarter south of the city center, and hastily beat a retreat looking genuinely scared, and I knew a few adults who were frightened as well, even on major streets in broad daylight. One Han professor became a drinking buddy, introduced by a Singaporean teacher who worked hard to serve as cultural interpreter. One boozy night in 2005, at his apartment, the professor asked me “Aren’t you afraid of the Uyghurs? You’re an American, they’re Muslim. They hate you.” Frustrated that for nearly three years both sides had been frank with me but never with one another, and thinking we were now drinking buddies who could tell it like it is, I looked him in the eye and said “No, they don’t hate me. They hate you.”

He went quiet. We left soon after, and my Singaporean friend said I had been way too harsh.

“Friends are honest with each other,” I argued. “He’s a smart guy, I didn’t say anything he doesn’t know.”

“Yes, he knows it, and you and I know it, but you can’t say it to his face. It’s too much.”

The professor didn’t invite me drinking again, and I left Xinjiang not long after. By then, any fondness I heard from Uyghurs in Xinjiang for Bush was dissipating as images of the ongoing violence in Iraq piled up in the media and, perhaps more importantly, as China and the U.S. aligned on many elements of the “War on Terror”. China embraced WoT rhetoric in its campaigns against real and imagined separatism in Xinjiang. The fact that Uyghur prisoners in Guantanamo Bay were not handed over to the P.R.C. showed there was still daylight between the two countries’ perspectives on Xinjiang, but after that I never heard of anyone entertaining the idea of America swooping in to liberate Xinjiang. At the time, I thought the man who told me Bush was going for a trifecta with Xinjiang was delusional; now I think he might not have meant it as a genuine prediction, but a wish that it was true, that someone was coming, or maybe just that I would understand how he felt. That someone would listen.

Pro wrestling as American soft power so why not Jerry Springer?

In a piece this week on the Foreign Policy website, Justin D. Martin looks at the surprising popularity of pro wrestling in the Middle East.

Qatar is a conservative, Wahhabi-leaning country where alcohol consumption is illegal for citizens and Internet filters block pornography. Violent media content, however, is widely consumed and seemingly uncontested — a trend that permeates the broader Arab world. While sexual media is censored — the WWE show in Doha featured none of the dancing women seen at other venues — images of combat are ubiquitous.

I’m not a psychologist, and there are many reasons why that is, but it doesn’t take Siggy Freud to wonder at a possible casual link between repression of sex and a celebration of violence.

Makes me wonder though about whether pro wrestling — especially the American export version — might have a market in China.  People like fake things here.  People also like watching foreigners doing funny things.

But why not take the idea to its logical conclusion.  People might buy tickets to watch American pro wrestlers fake beat the crap out of each other, but at the end of the match it’s just hulking juicehead behemoths in masks and spandex.  It’s American sure, but is it America?

My feeling is if you’re going to go that route why not just say fuck it:  EMBRACE the stereotype.  Syndicate old episodes of the Jerry Springer or Steve Wilkos show on CCTV.

People would eat. that. shit. up.  Fat Foreigners Fighting would be the biggest show in CCTV history.  Get Li Yong and Yang Rui to provide color commentary and you would have empty streets each week at broadcast time.  Hell, it might be the most effective anti-America propaganda CCTV has shown in years, because God knows they could use some help right now in that department.

Moving the Capital, or, The Unbearable Heaviness of Beijing

Government officials are planning to move the capital of China to Xinyang, a little city in Henan you’ve never heard of! I know this to be true because some guy on Weibo said it a couple of weeks ago. Tea Leaf Nation has a post up about the chatter.

This isn’t particularly new. Wang Ping, a professor at Capital University of Economics and Business, suggested relocating the capital in 1980, and there have been periodic stirrings of discussion ever since, generally following hard on the heels of dust storms, airpocalypses, floods, city-wide traffic jams, and other reminders that good feng-shui or no, there are real downsides to living in a smog basin at the edge of the Gobi Desert whose water table dropped about 10 meters over the past decade and whose post-1949 renovations could be used to teach urban planning courses in Hell. 1

Baidupedia says a group of 479 National People’s Congress delegates submitted a proposal to move the capital in March 2006, about a month before a sandstorm that dumped 330,000 tons of sand on the city overnight — but there doesn’t seem to be any record of this, and people don’t submit proposals to the NPC here on Earth One. If it did exist, the proposal would have been one of 5,030 submitted for discussion that year, alongside proposals recommending more attractive Xinwen Lianbo anchors, body-weight limits for government officials, and a requirement that foreigners marrying Chinese nationals be able to guarantee the cost of a return ticket to China in the event of a divorce.
In April 2006, the economist Hu Xingdou sent a proposal to the central government, the State Council, and the NPC urging that the capital be relocated to central China or the region south of the Yangtze. Action was swiftly not taken. Two years later, Hu co-authored the Report on the Relocation of China’s Capital with Qin Fazhan. The report recommended a “one country, three capitals” strategy with Beijing as the cultural and technological capital of the nation, Shanghai as the economic capital, and some new city as the actual capital capital. Hu and Qin concluded that the Nanyang Basin in Henan and Hubei provinces would be the only sensible place to build a new capital; other commentators have suggested Xi’an, Luoyang, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing, Nanjing, Zhengzhou, Lanzhou, Wuhan, Linxi, Xiangyang, Liaocheng, Kaifeng, Chengdu, Hanzhong, Haikou, Yueyang, Xinyang, Changsha, Jingmen, and Anyang, the last capital of the Shang dynasty, as more suitable locations than Beijing.

Meanwhile, the Beijing urban planning office cannot even be arsed to move to the east Sixth Ring Road.

Not that there wouldn’t be recent precedent for a move. The Republic of China bounced back and fourth between four capitals (Nanjing to Beijing to Nanjing to Wuhan to Nanjing to Chongqing and back to Nanjing) during its brief stay on the mainland, and for 21 blissful years, Beijing — laying low and going by the name Beiping — was out of the limelight. When I read the Tea Leaf Nation post, I thought immediately of this passage from Qian Zhongshu’s novella Cat (猫), a very thinly veiled roman a clef about the intellectuals who made the city their home during that time:

…For in those last years before the war, Beiping — the Northern capital scorned by Tang Ruoshi, Xie Zaihang, and other literary worthies of the Ming and Qing dynasties as Peking, lowliest and filthiest of all cities — had become generally recognized as the most cultured, most beautiful city in all of China. Even the dust that lay three feet thick over Beiping on windless days had taken on the hue and fragrance of antiquity, as if it held the last traces of the Mongol, Ming, and Qing dynasties, and museums in the younger European and American countries sent specialists to collect vials of it for display. After the capital was moved south, Beiping lost the political function it had so long served, and became — in the way of all useless and outmoded things — a curiosity, an item of historical value.
Take a dilapidated junk shop, call it a venerable antique store, and without the slightest change in the facts of the matter you will effect a marvelous transformation in the mind of the customer. Imagine the wretched embarrassment of having to pick through junk shops for cheap items! How different from the wealth, the zeal, the discernment of antique lovers! In the same way, people who would never stoop to visiting a junk shop now came to browse curios, and people who had had no choice but to browse junk shops now found themselves elevated to the dignity of antiquarians. Those living in Beiping could now count themselves worldly and cultured, could look down their noses at friends from Nanking or Shanghai as if the mere fact of their residence conferred rank and status. To claim that Shanghai or Nanking could produce art or culture would have been as ridiculous as averring that the hands, feet, and gut were capable of independent thought.
The discovery of “Peking Man” at Zhoukoudian was further demonstration of the superiority of Beiping residents. Peking Man, in his day, had been the most advanced of all monkeys; so, today, was Beiping Man the most cultured of Chinese. The newspapers of the day heralded the rise of the “Peking Set,” and the local intellectuals traced their spiritual lineage back to Peking Man — which was why they never called themselves the “Beiping Set,” even though the name of the city had changed. The Peking Set were Southerners, almost to a man, and they were as proud of their newfound home as ever any Jews were of their adoptive countries. It was very nearly the only thing they ever spoke of. Since moving to Beiping, too, Mrs. Li’s athlete’s foot had cleared up — an unexpected side-benefit of living in the cultural center of the nation.

So will the Chinese government actually move the capital, as Some Guy on Weibo says? Hey, from your lips to the NDRC’s ears — but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Not any more than I usually do in Beijing, anyway.

  1. The desire to burn Beijing to the ground and jump up and down on the ashes has at least -5000-years- 600 years of recent history, going back to the Ming, which set up a capital in Nanjing, sacked Khanbaliq, renamed it “Beiping,” then changed their minds 30 years later and started building the whole thing over again, except moved a few feet to the left. The Yongle Emperor changed the name of the city back to “Beijing” in 1403 and made it the principal capital of the Ming empire in 1420.
    Come to think of it, this goes back even further: the Mongols who started building Khanbaliq/Dadu in 1264 did something of a number on the abandoned Jurchen Jin capital of Zhongdu (which lay more or less where the Xicheng and Fengtai districts of modern Beijing are) when they sacked it in 1215.

    On the subject of more recent depredations: Wang Jun’s book 城记, now available in English as Beijing Record: A Physical and Political History of Planning Modern Beijing, is a great read for anyone interested in a history of some of the completely avoidable things that were done to Beijing after 1949. The sketches of the rejected Liang Sicheng/Chen Zhanxiang proposal — which would have kept the city walls as a public park — will break your heart. The only scrap of comfort is that things could always have been way worse.

Passengers booted off of KLM plane

Anyone who has flown to or from China knows the drill.  Flight attendants on international carriers are often very…particular about following the safety guidelines.  Many upwardly mobile Chinese tend to believe that rules are for other people.  Hilarity often ensues.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines confirmed Friday that one of its aircraft traveling from Beijing to Amsterdam was suspended from taking off after six Chinese passengers quarreled with flight attendants on Wednesday.

The Netherlands airline told the Global Times Friday that “there was an incident with Chinese passengers on board and that the aircraft returned to the gate,” but refused to reveal more details on the incident.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China was not available for comment by Friday due to the week-long Spring Festival holidays.

Six passengers, all in first class, were late for boarding and refused to wear their seat belts as well as turn off their mobile phones when the aircraft was preparing to take off from the Beijing Capital International Airport for Schiphol Airport, the Beijing-based The Mirror reported on Thursday.

A passenger on board surnamed Lin said in the report that he heard a fierce quarrel and a middle-aged female passenger speaking rudely and threatening to take photos and expose the photos online.

The report said the captain of the flight refused to take off until the passengers were taken away by airport security.

For some, the problem is unfamiliarity with the basic protocols of air travel.* And there’s always going to be a few people who, regardless of nationality, are just assholes.**  I flew back from Kunming this week and as soon as the wheels hit the tarmac in Beijing, the flight attendants were running around playing “whack-a-mole” with passengers who assumed that since the plane was not in a death spiral it was safe to get up and open the overhead bins.  I thought I saw one attendant actually tackle a dude.  And this wasn’t a language issue.  This was Hainan Airlines (one of my favorites) and Chinese passengers.

On Weibo, few are buying the “language barrier” excuse.  Most of the comments are deriding the KLM passengers who were removed from a plane, complaining that such boorish behavior is a loss of face for other Chinese travelers.  Others speculated that they must be members of a corrupt official family.  Still more lamented that money rarely seems to buy good manners among the 暴发户 baofahu, the Chinese term for the nouveau riche.

That said, in a lot of these cases language barriers do make the situation worse.  There are several unpleasant things that recur every year: my annual prostate exam, renewing my visa, and at least once every twelve months willingly placing myself in the surly and sometimes openly hostile embrace of United Airlines.

Say what you will about Chinese carriers, most of the staff speak a foreign language.  They might not speak it well, but they have functional communication skills in important topics like “coffee or tea?” “would you like a newspaper?” and “sit down, sir before your pink wheelie suitcase falls out of the bin and gives somebody a concussion.”   (Okay, I made the last one up but you get the idea.)

United Airlines? Chinese passengers are lucky if even two of the cabin crew speak their language.  Or any language other than English.  The route to and from Beijing must be a primo gig because the crew is always a senior group of hardened and jaded attendants.  You imagine if you met one out on the town, she’d be croaking through her menthol smoke about how she once made out with Neil Young.***

On my last flight on United, there were the usual shenanigans with people ignoring the rules.  I know this pisses off the attendants but the response was hardly a soft power win for the USA.  One attendant asked a passenger to put his seat back up.**** When he didn’t understand her, she — how predictable was this? — just talked louder and slower.  Then she started threatening him.  All the while the dude was looking around to see if anybody could tell him why the women with the horrible bottle dye job was screeching in his general direction.  Finally another passenger — a Laowai — translated for him and he complied.

So it goes both ways.  I have a hunch that the level of entitlement among passengers in the first class cabin on a flight from Beijing to Europe ranks somewhere between “God” and “The guy who has pictures of a naked Xi Jinping holding a goat.”  It’s the same impulse that causes drivers here to speed up when approaching a cross walk. (If pedestrians don’t want to be hit by a car, then why don’t they just stop being poor and buy their own car?) At the same time, international airlines, American carriers in particular, can do a better job about staffing their planes with more people who can communicate across cultural and language barriers.

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* h/t @MissXQ

**Why can’t this be the first line of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

*** YJ once found half of a worm in her salad on a United flight. When she showed it to the flight attendant the response was “that sometimes happens.” After fuming silently for a few minutes, YJ turns to me and says, “Don’t ever bitch to me about ‘Chinese service standards’ again.”

**** By the way, one of my ALL TIME pet peeves — the compulsive recliner. I can’t even speak rationally about this.

Chinese IT Startups: Get Rectified!

In my time following China’s IT sector, I’ve a lot of unfortunate English names for Chinese IT start-ups. TechInAsia a while back reported on a new carpooling site called Wodache.com, which is fine in Pinyin but given this list of real businesses I’ve seen over the years, I end up reading it with a jaundiced eye:

Thankfully, we here at Rectified.name are ready to help. With  our combined 15+ years in China IT, 20+ years in PR and marketing, and 50+ years in China, we can help you choose an English name for your company that won’t make your foreign investors snicker like third graders and then awkwardly try to avoid explaining the joke. Operators are standing by.

Playing the Meritocracy Game

升官圖

A Shengguan Tu Board.

The latest issue of Foreign Affairs has dueling articles by Eric X. Li and Huang Yasheng titled “The Life of The Party” and “Democratize or Die”, respectively arguing for the CCP’s enlightened non-democratic meritocracy and its imminent destruction if it fails to implement democracy. Both have their fair points as well as their strawmen and sleight-of-hand, and others have effectively critiqued Li and his Canadian tag-team partner, Daniel A. Bell, for a flawed definition of “meritocracy.” While Bell and Li have avoided claiming this meritocratic process is the latest in a long historical tradition, the connection is implied when the mechanisms Li describes, from the national college entrance exams to the various level of bureaucratic rankings and evaluations, are so similar to the the imperial keju system, which Professor Mark Elliott argued in the New York Times was hardly “meritocratic”. He pointed out what mattered was family connections and money. In fact, this was so common it was a board game – Imperial China’s answer to Monopoly.

In a class on “Gaming in Libraries” (yup, that’s a thing now), I had to build a basic web game using MIT’s Scratch platform (most librarians aren’t programmers – yet). Years ago, in Richard Smith’s China’s Cultural Heritage, I had read about a Chinese board game called Shengguan Tu (升官圖), or “Promoting the Officials,” where players assume the of an aspiring mandarin, moving through the imperial examinations and through the bureaucracy, eventually rising to the “Da Nei” or inner sanctum Grand Secretariat in the imperial household. Along the way, players pay “donations” to higher ranked players in each department.

There are few English sources on Shengguan Tu, and almost no Chinese sources online (1). The best source I’ve found is Carole Morgan’s article on the game in Journal of the American Oriental Society in 2004 (subscription/paywall access), which draws on the work of gaming ethnographer Stewart Culin and a pamphlet published in Taiwan in the 1980s, whose author Cai Ce admitted he wasn’t clear on the rules either. Some highlights from her article (and Carole, drop me an email if you read this):

  • The game has existed in some form since the Tang Dynasty, when a precursor was invented by a Henan official named Li He 李郃.
  • There’s alot of variety, with versions alternating between square and round boards, tops and dice, and varying numbers of bureaus and positions.
  • Rules on movement and payment vary, but the dice/tops always have four possibilities: dé 德 (virtue), cái 才 (talent), gōng 功 (ability), and zāng 赃 (bribery, general skullduggery). Depending on your current post, any of these could be either beneficial or disastrous for your career.
  • Shengguan Tu and its ancestors, including Daoist versions where you climbed through the ranks of the heavenly bureaucracy, were gambling games.
  • One legend says Ji Yun, an editor of the Qing Dynasty encyclopedia Siku Quanshu, stayed up late gambling with his friends and showed up late to an appointment with a pissed-off Emperor Qianlong. To wiggle out of trouble, Ji told the emperor he was up late studying government administration and as proof showed him the game board. If that’s not true, it ought to be.

I picked up a cheap kid’s version of the game on Taobao and built the game below – it still has some bugs in the payment system, there aren’t clear rules on the amount of payment except once you’re in the Grand Secretariat, and the board I bought had typos – I think I caught all of them. Most of the title translations come from Charles O. Hucker’s Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China, and in a few places I fudged it. I wouldn’t call the online version fun (with some VC money I could make it awesome, I swear) but playing the real thing with family for pocket money isn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon during the Chinese New Year holidays. It’s no mahjong, though.

Learn more about this project

Notes:

  1. The now dead websites http://www.shengguantu.com/ and http://geocities.com/lswk/, available in the Internet Archive, were among the few sites about the game. A Baidupedia entry has some information about the game as well.

Staying Safe During Spring Festival: A Teacher’s Advice to his Students


This is an actual email I sent to my students today.  I thought it also might be useful to any first time Spring Festival-ers out there.  

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Tonight is the beginning of Spring Festival.  It’s one of the craziest, happiest, and most exciting nights in the Chinese calendar, and I hope that you all have fun tonight celebrating the Year of the Snake*.  As you are doing so, there are some things you can do to stay safe and healthy.

Be careful with fireworks.  Think about the kind of attention Chinese manufacturers usually give to such things as “Quality Control” and “Product Safety.”  Now look at the explosive device you are holding in your hand and which you just bought from some dude in a tent on the side of the road.

Fireworks are part of the culture and they can be fun, but every year the emergency room is filled with horrible injuries. They are often the kind of injury that will mean answering to new and interesting nicknames like “Lefty,” “Three-Finger Joe,” “No Scrotum Li,” and “Holyshitwhereisyourleg Wang.”

Be careful not to get caught by friendly fire or become collateral damage.  I’ve seen people throwing exploding firecrackers out of fifth floor windows into the street below because it was “hen renao.”  I’ve also seen people who are a little confused about which angle is suitable to fire a bottle rocket (Safety tip: That would be UP!).  When walking around the city, keep your eyes open and be ready to hit the deck.  Seriously.

Be careful with the Baijiu.  First of all, it is perfectly appropriate (preferable, really) to say “no, thanks.”  Your host will not think you are being rude if you decide to stick to Sprite.  On the other hand, they WILL think you are being rude if you projectile vomit on their new sofa while sexually harassing their cat.

Second, baijiu is very much a “buy the ticket, take the ride” experience.  Once you get on that train and it has left the station, it can be hard to get off.  If you don’t think you can handle it, don’t start.  Remember that it is something of a game in China to pressure people to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do just to be part of the group. (See: Revolution, Cultural)

Finally, NEVER get into a car with somebody who has been drinking.  The Beijing government is getting tougher about drinking and driving, but attitudes toward driving under the influence here are lax by US standards.**  Caution is also necessary when traveling around the city or walking in the area around campus.  It is an unfortunate reality that many drivers today and tomorrow will be lit up like a forest fire.  Be especially careful of black Audis.  Just trust me on this.

Have fun. Stay Safe. Happy New Year.

- Jeremiah

P.S. Yes, your host family will make you watch the 春节晚会. No, it’s not your imagination or the baijiu fumes…it really is that bad. Yes, it’s even worse this year than last.*** No, members of China’s ethnic minorities do not spend all of their time dancing and singing about how much they love the Party even if that’s what your host sister told you she learned in school.  Yes, that is Celine Dion. No, I have no idea what she’s doing there either.  Finally, yes…you MAY make fun of it. Everybody does.

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*As Zodiac animals go, only people who were actually born in the Year of the Snake get excited about it.  Souvenir sellers are especially hurting because let’s face it, everybody wants a stuffed monkey.  Not everyone is cool with a toy serpent.  Also there’s some history here.  Past Snake Years are 1989 and 2001.  ‘Nuff Said.

**Although last week a cop was so pissed at a petulant drunk driver that he pulled his gun.  The cop is now a hero on the Chinese Interwebs.

***Score bonus points with your hosts by asking them if they think the show will be the same this year without Zhao Benshan.

Why do we call it “Spring Festival”?

spring

For most of us 春节 chunjie or “Spring Festival” is an opportunity to enjoy a delicate mix of high-proof alcohol and shoddily made explosives.  There are also dumplings and television specials so neutered they make the Lawrence Welk show look like “Kid Rock Night” at Cheetah’s.

Speaking of neutered, has there ever been a blander term than “Spring Festival”? What the hell does it even mean? It’s held in the middle of winter. In North China that means we celebrate spring by huddling around in weather that is so goddamn frigid the sheep start voluntarily walking up to chuanr guys and saying, “Seriously fucker, let’s just do this.”

For thousands of years it was simply the New Year, at least according to the moon.  So what changed?

Well, the calendar for one.  On January 1, 1912 Sun Yat-sen declared the founding of the Republic of China.  One of the perks which carried over from the old imperial era was that the founder of a new government gets to decide on the calendar.  Sun chose the Gregorian calendar and to avoid any confusion declared January 1 “New Year’s Day. This required a re-branding of the Lunar New Year as something else and “Spring Festival” was born.  Of course by the time Spring Festival 1912 rolled around Sun had already traded the presidency to Yuan Shikai for a bag of dumplings and a vague promise that Yuan “would honor the democratic process or some shit like that.”

In 1928 Chiang Kai-shek decided to take it a step further and tried to sync the lunar and solar New Year holidays, declaring that henceforth Chinese New Year/Spring Festival would be held on January 1. This was another one of Chiang’s brilliant “But that’s the way they do it in Japan” ideas.  Japan still does it, in China it lasted a year.  Spring Festival 1929 was held according to the Lunar Calendar.

When the PRC was established in 1949, Mao decided to keep the Gregorian calendar and with it the name “Spring Festival” to refer to the Lunar New Year.  Over time however many of the more colorful customs associated with Lunar New Year such as the burning of the Kitchen God or visiting a temple to pray for luck and fortune gradually succumbed to government campaigns against feudal superstition.

During the Lunar New Year 1967, the first “Spring Festival” of the Cultural Revolution era, workers were encouraged to turn in their train tickets and celebrate with overtime. Village loudspeakers blared messages telling farmers that nothing said “New Year spirit” like digging irrigation ditches.  For the next thirteen years, few dared to openly celebrate the Lunar New Year. Instead people enjoyed new traditions like “turning in your neighbors for thinking mean things about Mao” and “Whack a Teacher with a 2×4.” Good times!

In 1979 an op-ed appeared in the People’s Daily asking “Where is Spring Festival?”  The next year the fireworks returned.  In 1983, the first 春节晚会 Spring Festival Gala debuted on CCTV and had people immediately wishing for a return of the Cultural Revolution.  Two hours into the first broadcast Deng Pufang tried to throw himself out of a window.

Stupid name or not, it is a special time.  Over the next few days, families will gather to eat, drink and remind everyone of all the horrible shit they’ve done to each other over the past year.  Then the whole family heads outside to toss lit firecrackers at loved ones.

I love it.  Even if spring still feels like it’s months away.

To Gift or Re-Gift: The Art of Reciprocal Exchange in China

Ski MaskLast month I received an awkward and unfitting Christmas present from a close Kunming friend. It was a huge, grey knit hat-scarf-terrorist-mask-thing that would look better on a resident of Tatooine than on me. When gift-giving holidays come around, regardless of the country or culture, it’s common to get gifts like unwanted golf shoes, ugly stuffed animals, off-color ties, or odorous perfumes that we never asked for and never will use. Just as many of us have been thinking about how to handle awkward and unwanted Christmas gifts, I too was presented with the dilemma of what to do with this hideous fashion mistake.

When living in China one always receives gifts from friends. Gifts serve the purpose of warming up the friendship and sharing mirth. In a different vein, when a person has power to make decisions, serves in a leadership capacity, or provides services for others, gifts come with a string of expected returned favors attached to them. I’ve been in leadership positions in China for more than ten years, yet I’ve have always had trouble personally consuming gifts I receive from people who expect me to do something for them.

I’m always happy to lend a hand where I can, and when appropriate I’ll accept gifts openly. When a gift comes with an expected request like assistance looking at a contract or a distressed mom seeking advice for sending her child to college abroad, I always follow through to the best of my ability. I know to never open the gift in front of the giver so he or she doesn’t lose face with my potential negative evaluation. But I never feel good using the gift. To me gifting is unnecessary – I’m happy to help without the gift, but nonetheless it is customary to accept the thing.  Upon receipt, the givers heart is settled knowing that the favor I performed for them was met with some level of equal reciprocation.

Recently, I changed jobs and had to clean out my office closest. I found six years worth of unconsumed gifts – little trinkets and key chains from points in China far and near, coffee beans from Mexico, a decorative tin of fine tea among other things. Most of these gifts were from colleagues thanking me for supporting their ideas and professional development. The gifts were a return favor for being a benevolent manager, I guess. My excavation also unearthed a pile of various liquors that I received in return for using the services of particular businesses over the years! None of the gifts was extravagant or expensive – in fact, no individual item had a value higher than twenty or thirty dollars – truth be told the pile of liquor was ample in quantity to summon Freddie Mercury incarnate to a KTV party a few weeks ago.  Seriously.

Even though I struggle with personally consuming gifts, years of living in China have taught me a golden rule of dealing with gifts: when appropriate, pass it on and re-gift.   Applying this rule, the liquor was shared with friends, and I dispensed the other gifts to my employees in a transparent and fair fashion.

On certain levels, passing a gift that was meant for you to someone else may sound cheap and disingenuous, yet in Chinese reality, re-gifting is a perfectly acceptable behavior. You may think that the giver thought long and hard about the perfect gift, or you may also believe in the adage that it’s the thought that counts, but in China it’s the action of giving the gift that counts and not the object itself.  Re-gifting an unwanted gift actually brings you more benefits. Passing the gift on is an action that requires the receiver to reciprocate for you further down the road.  So in many ways re-gifting is the gift that keeps on giving.

To illustrate, a few years ago the manager of a bus service that my organization employed called me saying that he would be arriving at my office in five minutes to give me something. My spidey-sense detected a gift was coming, but I couldn’t run away or say I was out of the office to avoid the gift (remember, I’m loathe to receive these). So I walked down to the front of our building as he pulled up in his 50 seat tour bus and waved my hands that I didn’t need any gifts today. However, he insisted and thrust a package in my face.  There was no other choice than to accept especially since a gaggle of Japanese tourists, with cameras ready, was watching the exchange unfold and not accepting the gift would have been an act of disrespect toward my friend.

Upon inspection, the package was a set of expensive Japanese knives most likely given to him by one of the tourists; I knew that if I took them home, my workmates would think I would use the knives for personal purposes (word always gets out fast about these things), so I donated the knives to the staff for use in our staff kitchen. The result was smiles all around because the office really needed a new set of knives. In another instance, a business partner who runs a tourist agency offered to give me a sizeable cash kickback after the completion of our first travel contract. I told him that I wasn’t interested and that he should plow the kickback into future trips to provide for use in better services for those who actually participated in the trips.

So back to the gift of the unsolicited funky head-wrap. Applying the logic of re-gifting that had worked so many times before, I rewrapped the hideous thing and served it up as a secret Santa gift at a party with friends on Christmas day. Unsurprisingly, the gift was received with as much gratitude as when I accepted it, but lo and behold, my friend, the receiver, actually liked it and thought it perfect for her tastes. Tomorrow she returns to her galaxy far, far away. I wonder what souvenir she’ll send me?

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