May 2010

One of my favorite places to take pictures in China is at construction sites.  It’s a basic metaphor for the changes China as a whole country is undergoing, as well as the scene of some of the most striking photos.  Here are a few of my favorites…


A short list of sights, sounds, experiences that remind me where I am…more to come

  • Two friends and I came back from a night out in Jinan to find the walkway to the apartment we were staying in had become a gigantic hole in the ground with two Chinese guys standing in it, just as shocked to see us as we were to see them.  We had about three inches of wobbly ground to walk on, but with the help of the workers got through.  The hole must have been over four feet deep, three feet wide and 6 feet long.  But as of six o’clock the next morning, couldn’t even tell it had been tampered with.
  • Disney has English schools in Shanghai.  Brilliant
  • This:

  • Shrink-wrapped chicken feet.
  • There’s a very upscale restaurant in Liaocheng themed after Xiang Yang (Little Sheep), an immensely popular children’s cartoon character.  This would be the equivalent of Sponge-Bob themed restaurant serving thirty dollar steaks.
  • Photo-Shop, Windows, Autocad…all cost about 5 RMB (less than a dollar.)
  • A dwarf-community/ theme park in Yunnan Province
  • Strangers actually talk to each other on the train.
  • I was a “celebrity judge” last night for an English class’ drama performance.
  • Most foreigners in Liaocheng have been featured on the local news at one point or another, myself included.
  • My buddy lit a cigarette once and his mouth went numb for a minute from exposure to too much ammonia.
  • Jeep is an automobile and clothing brand.

Below is an excerpt from an article on Guanxi Master, one of  my favorite blogs about Chinese culture and the relationship between East and West, about a recent reproduction of the classic film Around the World in Eighty Days, in which Jackie Chan plays the role of the wise and capable assistant to his bumbling Western “master.”

Past and Present Hollywood Stereotypes and Archetypes of China

Posted by Frank Reichart | 17 May, 2010

The entire movie gets its comic moments from the clueless arrogance and stupidity of the Western character as he is being resourcefully used by the intelligent, swashbuckling Eastern character. While in China, Chan’s character engages in setting right an ancient wrong, something which his English “master” cannot understand or fathom as he sulks at perceived betrayal.

What is striking in the latest film as a cultural symptom is that this is exactly the kind of image China wishes to project upon its current relations with the West. The West is clueless, and its quixotic talk of moral integrity and “global focus” falls easily into the hands of a more capable and realist East. ( Read the rest of the article here.)

While Reichart proves an interesting point by using this recent reproduction as an example of an Asian stereotype, in my opinion he fails to recognize some of the most prominent stereotypes that Asians must endure in film and television today.

You wouldn’t call the newest Around the World in Eighty Days a blockbuster by any means.  But let’s take a movie like The Hangover for instance, in which four friends go out on the town in Vegas for a bachelor party, only to wake up the next morning to find the groom missing.  The three remaining partyers go through a slew of adventures to find the missing groom, including an altogether wacky (and hilarious) scene in which one of them opens the trunk of a car expecting to find their lost buddy, only to have a short, naked Asian man pop out, wrap his legs around one of the guys, and proceed to beat him with series of hua’s!  and heeyah’s!

Here’s another for you…in the most recent season of The Office, perhaps the most popular television in America right now, a new character named Hiday is introduced.  Hiday appears in the last thirty seconds of an episode, relating to the camera his former life as heart surgeon in Japan, his “accidental” murder of the Yakuza gang boss, and his subsequent fleeing to the United States.  Hiday speaks with a thick Japanese accent riddled with stereotypical grammatical errors, even going as far to say “When in Japan, heart surgeon, number one.”

Now I’m no kill joy, and admittedly am a fan of both the The Hangover and The Office, but while watching these scenes I couldn’t help but think about the fact that the Western audience seems like they just don’t take Asians seriously.  While hearing a French or Latino person speak English might suggest a kind of exoticism, an Asian person speaking English is downright goofy.

While on the outside this racial stereotype might not seem as malicious as some of the ones that Hollywood and broadcast television are guilty of, it nonetheless signifies a serious lack of respect for our Eastern counterparts,  something that Western culture cannot afford to hang on to if we wish to have a seat at the table that is a world dominated by Eastern policies.

Character: 还可以

Pinyin: Hái Kěyǐ

Literal translation: “still can”

Actual translation:  “还可以” can be used to respond to someone asking you what you think about something.  For example, “Liaocheng zenmeyang?” What do you think about Liaocheng? “还可以,” meaning not bad, or alright.  I like this phrase for two reasons.  First of all when you say it right it has this rhythmic feel to it.  You could almost hear Jay-Z throwing it into a refrain, plus I love the fact that it can basically be translated into “still got it,” as in “Liaocheng’s still got it!”

Character: 飞机

Pinyin:  Fēijī

Literal Translation: “flying machine”

Actual Translation: Airplane.  The Chinese language was developed long before many of the modern comforts of today were around and since it’s a pictorial language they can’t just make up new characters for every new invention, so a lot of times they’re added together to achieve the desired purpose.  For example “huo ji,” meaning fire machine is the Chinese word for lighter.

Character: 马马虎虎

Pinyin: Mǎ Mǎ Hǔ Hǔ

Literal Translation: “Horse horse tiger tiger”

Actual Translation:  “So-so.”  I just like the idea of someone asking me how my dinner was, or how my trip to Jinan was and me responding by saying “Eh, you know, horse horse tiger tiger.”

Here’s a story you might have heard before…an American goes to a foreign country and in the first week buys something he wants to bring home as a souvenir.  It’s usually something simple; a picture, a novelty zippo, a mini statue of the Eiffel Tower, but in this case it’s a comb made from the horn of a yak.  Now I know what you’re thinking, a comb made from the horn of a yak is pretty cool, not your average souvenir. But ask anyone who’s been to China and they’ll tell you that you can find them just about anywhere, jewelry stores, street vendors, even airport gift shops are likely to have them.  Well this foreigner, knowing no better, bought the very first yak horn comb he came across, and was forced to lug it around for the rest of the journey in his already ladened pack (we’re talking about a big comb here), making sure to pack it so that the fragile bristles don’t break.  An amateur mistake by an amateur traveler.

But that was a long time ago and I’m a different person now.  I do my best to keep my wallet tucked away in my pocket and search for specific souvenirs instead of impulse buying.  But every now and then I come across an object I just simply have to have.  Below is a video of a “musical loop player” that repeatedly plays a series of Buddhist chants and songs. (You may have heard of similar device known as the Buddha Machine made by the American based music duo FM3.)

I fell in love with this thing the second I saw it, A) because it’s weird and B) because I feel like it encapsulates so many aspects of present day Chinese culture.  The songs and chants it plays are deeply ingrained in the culture of China and have been since Buddhism first reached China, yet they’re tossed into a cheap piece of plastic with flashing neon lights, bad recordings resulting in distortion and reverb.  If you think about it it’s almost a perfect metaphor for China today, aspects of an old culture being distributed by modern methods, and no wonder the sound quality isn’t so good.

I had thought that by now I would have known every part of Liaocheng, but still every time I go out for a bike ride I end up in a new part of town.  I hugged the canal east of school yesterday an eventually found myself in a neighborhood on the edge of urban Liaocheng, where the apartment buildings meet the fields.  It was about five in the afternoon, quitting time, dinner time, time for a smoke and some tea and a bowl of noodles.  All around me people were on their way from work, heading home with their faces to ground and a determined rhythm of pace.

Despite being a so-called “small city,” Liaocheng is as busy and bustling a metropolis as this Vermonter has ever lived in.  All around me life bustles with alarming vigor. The car horns never shutup.  The trucks never stop rolling.  The loud speakers never stop reciting the same sentence over and over again (Corn, roasted corn, five yuan!)  But at this point in my journey I feel as though I have finally become part of the craziness instead of just a bewildered observer. I swerve in and out traffic, dodging donkeys and taxis and semis.  I shout at the waiter to bring us some napkins.  I haggle for a new pair of socks.  I spit phlegm in the street gutter.  I shout and “ganbei,” swig my baiju and slam down on the table.

Rutland, Vermont is a small city, but in its own way it has the same sort of hustle and bustle that Liaocheng has, that any place where people live amongst one another has.  Route 7 cuts through the town on its way to New York and Burlington, Vermont, and at night the streets get so quiet that they set the stop lights to blinking yellows.  At certain places you can see the lights blinking on down the road in synchronization for miles, and it’s almost like watching the town breathe as it falls asleep.  It’s moments of peace like this that I feel most at home in a place, when I can watch it wind down and reflect on the days triumphs and losses.  If it was all craziness, all the time, there would be no time for reflection, and no way to actually know a place, no way to be settled.

Cranes lie motionless as the sun goes down on Liaocheng, in wait for the next day’s work.

A farmer hard to finish before she goes back home.

Nainai sits, waits, observes, contemplates

回家  Hui Jia “Going Home”

I was over at Patrick and Dean’s place the other night and we had a really interesting conversation concerning personal freedom and the differences thereof living in China compared to living in the West.  As the Western media never lets us forget, the Chinese government is one of the most overbearingly oppressive governments in the world when it comes to free speech.  Here’s a little of what Amnesty International has to say about China.

Amnesty International has documented widespread human rights violations in China. An estimated 500,000 people are currently enduring punitive detention without charge or trial, and millions are unable to access the legal system to seek redress for their grievances. Harassment, surveillance, house arrest, and imprisonment of human rights defenders are on the rise, and censorship of the Internet and other media has grown.

China cloaks these violations of human rights as a way to ensure the safety of the masses by discouraging dissent and possible upheaval (Ironic in my opinion, considering that their national hero, Mao Zedong, was one of the best revolutionary leaders the world has ever seen, but also one of the worst leaders of an established nation the world has ever seen.).  Western society, largely based on the principles contained within the Bill of Rights of the United States, stands for the opposite of what China is trying to achieve by suppressing dissent.  The constitution of the United States is specifically designed to provide the minority with power.  I won’t be the first person to say that it doesn’t always work out that way, but that the freedom of speech, the freedom to speak out against your authority figure, the freedom to dissent, is perhaps the single-most dearly held belief of the American public.  In China, if you speak out against your government in a public fashion, you will be arrested.  Plain and simple.

But let’s face it, we’re not perfect either.  While Western first world nations pride themselves on their human rights records, we do in fact face battle our own form of tyranny on a day to day basis.  A form of tyranny that masquerades in much the same way that the Chinese government says they do what they do in order to ensure the safety of their population, a form of tyranny that is perhaps more pervasive than that of China’s strong armed attempts at suppressing free speech.  I am of course speaking of the tyranny of the insurance industry.

Insurance companies have made life in the United States harder than one can imagine, in many ways that might not be perceivable to people who have never lived in a country like China, where insurance is basically a non-factor a government safety organizations (like the FDA for instance) have a far less wide reaching grasp.  What you begin to notice is that all these institutions put in place to ensure our safety end up hindering the growth of our economy, not to mention all of the fun.

I did a service project last Fall with my school in Hazard, Kentucky, helping to build low incomes houses.  We worked along side a team of nail pounding, fast walking, slow talking, ass-kickers who knew they’re way around a construction site.  These guys could smoke a cigarette, crack a dirty joke, and hammer in a nail all while balancing on rafters ten feet up in the air in a heavy breeze.  In five days the team was able to fully construct the exterior structure of a home, but an entire day was spent installing “safety platforms” around the edge of the building before we were able to begin work on the roof.  In China, the thought of having to do such a thing is laughable simply because it wastes time, time that the entire country doesn’t have.

A man in Beijing stands three stories high on scaffolding with no harness or railings.

You’ll find this phenomenon of a general lack of safety precautions in anydeveloping country, but China presents two attributing factors that make it stand out from all the others, its massive population and its simultaneous identities as both a third world and industrialized modern nation.  Population creates an incredibly competitive economic atmosphere where businesses seem to appear and disappear at the flick of a light switch, leaving little time for the luxury of safety precautions.  Its double status means a disparity of enforcement levels depending where you are, what kind of project you’re undertaking, and who’s watching.  Add in the culture of what Westerners might sometimes define as corruption or bribery, and you’ve got a system put in place that is nearly impossible to monitor and control.  They can’t check every restaurant to see if it’s clean.  They can’t enforce that everyone wear bike helmets.  They can’t waste time installing safety railings when the building has to be finished in a week.

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