June 2010

My exams are next Wednesday and like the rest of the student population in China I’ll be getting little to know rest, sunlight, or fresh air for the next days as I cram for my exams, so the blog has had to take a backseat.

In the meantime, check out this article on so-called ‘cram schools’, popular not only in China but all over Asia.  The Chinese education system is based entirely on exams, and while there are rumblings of a need to change that system, it’s been ingrained in their culture since the time of Confucius.  I have a lot of personal as well as ideological issues with this system, of which I’ll have to write about at a later time.  Here are a couple more articles about the examination system in China.

Making the Grade in China-CNN

China’s College Entry Test is a National Obsession-New York Times

Yu Jian, “Education Without Heart”-China Geeks

High Tech Exam Cheating in China-Simple Thoughts


One difficulty I’ve had in learning Chinese is the number of verbs needed to describe similar but different actions.  For example, in English the verb ‘to play’ can be used to describe many actions,  such as, “I play guitar,” or, “I play soccer.”  The Chinese translation is a bit more complex than that.  The verb “to play,” translated as 玩 (wán), literally refers to ‘playing,’ as in, “The children play together.”

If you want to say “I play guitar,” you actually say, 我弹吉他 (Wǒ dàn jítā), literally translated as “I flick guitar.”

“I play soccer,” is actually 我踢足球 (Wǒ tī zúqiú), or “I kick soccer.”

” I play the trumpet,” is 我吹小号(Wǒ chuī xiǎo hào), or “I blow trumpet.

This makes learning Chinese verbs rather important, although you can often substitute words like 玩 (play) or 用 (use) and get your meaning across.  Sometimes it’s hard to remember all these different verbs, but I’ve also found that it’s a good tool for memorizing verbs that would otherwise be hard to commit to memory, especially because a lot of the phrases I find to be pretty cool.  I really like the idea of “flicking guitar,” and now I’ll probably never forget how to say flick in Chinese.

It’s summer now and the heat is borderline unbearable, and as a result a lot of Chinese men find shirts rather obsolete.  Even Mr. Wang, pictured here at what’s supposed to be a business lunch, opts to go shirtless.

In states, maybe it’s one out of every ten people that will take flyers that people are handing out on the streets.  But in China it’s literally every person that will take them.  I think it has something to do with the incredible consumer driven society.  But nontheless many of the flyers end up on the ground, so whereever there are flyers being handed out there are poor street scavengers, usually elderly people who can’t work anymore, who collect the little sheets of paper and return them to redemption centers for 2 mao (.2 yuan) each.

Sure there are grocery stores in China, but they tend to be overpriced.  It’s far more common for people to buy their fruits and vegetables at street side stands such as this one.

The number of cars in the road in China is growing by staggering amounts every day, but still most families opt for more economical forms of transportation, such as this three-wheeled motorbike.

Read Getting Whored Out, Part I

The problem with studying a culture as alien to me as China, is that I often have trouble distinguishing between what is a result of the culture itself, and what is the result of an individual’s character.  A lot of the social phenomenon I write about in this blog can be experienced in any part of the world, no matter what country or society you are in (see my post about Joe).  But of course no culture is alike, and while a certain practice might be prevalent in one country, it might be somewhat rare in another.  Here’s what reader Don Tai had to say about Getting Whored Out…Part I:

“In any country people will try to take advantage of you. If [Tony] was a true friend he would not have put you into such a position that either you or he would lose face. He should have given you a way out, but he did not. All this fluff about friendship and doing things you’re not comfortable with, that’s not Chinese culture but human nature.”

There’s a lot of validity to this statement, especially when he points out that Tony didn’t provide a “way out,” but that said, I still believe this story to be a good example, albeit somewhat extreme, of a common interaction between foreigners and Chinese people, especially Chinese business men, and here’s why.

China is what’s known as collective society, where the well-being of an individual is directly dependant upon the well-being of those around him.  Traditionally the society operates by way of two interconnected social strategies known as mianzi and guanxi.  Mianzi can be loosely interpreted as self respect or self image, while guanxi can be translated as relationships or connections.  One gives and receives mianzi in order to build one’s guanxi.  Everything from familial relationships to business operates by way of guanxi and mianzi, and without them personal success and happiness are hard to come by. (Keep in mind that this is the traditional style of social interaction in China, and as the world’s most populous country is going through one of the most radical economic and cultural revolutions the world has ever seen, social strategies are changing as well.)

According to an article I came across on middlekingdomlife.com, “A recent study conducted by the China Youth Daily found that over 93 percent of the 1,150 respondents surveyed admitted that face is very important to them, with 75 percent acknowledging that making a mistake in public was, by far, the most humiliating experience they could ever have (Shan, 2005).”

This results in a general unwillingness to directly admit to personal mistakes, as well as an unwillingness to directly deny a request.  Usually a more tactful, roundabout method is used, that often times may border on what Westerners would classify as dishonesty, thus creating a culture in which truth and honesty are not held in the same light as they are in Western culture.  Chinese people employ ‘white lies’ on a daily basis in order to maintain mianzi and guanxi. (This is perhaps one of the reasons for Tony’s severe disappointment in my refusal to hand out flyers.  Had I come up with an excuse, whether it was true or not, it would have softened the blow and saved Tony and I a good deal of strife. Although, as reader Don pointed out, it would have been more polite for Tony to offer me a way out had it occurred to him that handing out the flyers would have caused me to lose face.)

So compared to Western society, Chinese society at its core tends to be less honest, which isn’t to say that in this instance Chinese culture is any way worse than Western as much as it just different.  Compounding the issue is the fact that China is in many ways still in the pioneer stages of capitalism, an economic system in which dishonesty can pay out big, and in my opinion that’s when you start to see problems.  Capitalism in America has evolved to the point at which there are general rules and regulations that attempt to provide the consumer with more rights.  False advertising is of course illegal in the States, but is actually a pretty common practice in China.  I asked Tony what they would do when the students arrived at the English to discover that there was only one foreign teacher instead of three as the flyers advertised.  Tony told me that they will “have an explanation” as to why Serena and I were not teaching.  “You mean you will lie to them,“ I said.

“Yes,” he said, “We will lie to them.”  Tony then translated our interaction for Mr. Wang, and the two of them had a good laugh.  I wondered if they had ever heard of Bernie Madoff or Enron.

All this dishonesty makes my involvement with their plans less than comfortable for me, but as the white face in the crowd I played a key part in their business plan, even though I wasn’t actually working for them.  I find this to be a really common experience, not only in business but in any given social interaction because foreigners in China are face giving machines.  The rarity of foreigners, the obsession with Western culture, and the importance placed upon learning English means that my presence goes a long way in improving someone’s image.

Joe’s parents picked me up last night in shiny black Audi with black tinted windows and leather seats.  They work parents work in the government and enjoy the fat pay check that comes with the job title.  As a way to thank me for teaching their son they offered to take Serena and me out for dinner.  It was apparent early on that this would be one of those how-the-hell-did-I-get-here experiences.

The Gang: Tony, Joe, Me, "Cool Brother," Serena, "Cool Sister"

Millenary Dragon is famous for it's seafood. 鲁菜 (lu cai) is one of the 8 culinary traditions of China. Originating in nearby Jinan, it usually involves seafood.

We drove across town to pick up Serena at her apartment, and along the way I informed them that it was her birthday.  We stopped at a bakery to buy her a cake, the most expensive one in the shop, and then headed over to Millenary Dragon, the most expensive restaurant in Liaocheng.  They presented Serena with a bottle of red wine, the most expensive red wine you could buy, and me with a bottle of baiju, you guessed it, the most expensive one you could buy.  We hadn’t even ordered and already Joe’s parents had spent twice as much money than I spend in a week, and they weren’t quiet about it.  It’s pretty rude to talk about money in Western culture, but it’s common, even expected in some cases.

Is coral an endangered species? Well, it tastes good anyways...

Now I don’t want to give the wrong impression here…you might assume that communist party members are stuffy, arrogant, hard to get a long with, but in most cases its just the opposite.  I’ve actually found most Chinese politicians quite chummy.  They like to drink and smoke and sing karaoke just as much as the next guy.  Joe’s dad was impressed with my ability to toss back the baiju, and kept filling my cup and laughing hardily with each shot.  He liked my mohawk and beard and decided to call me 帅哥, (handsome brother).  He slapped his knee when Joe said “fuck” and I explained the meaning.  我们走朋友了。We were buddies.


Serena picks up the mic, despite telling us all she can't sing...

We dined on steamed octopus, deepfried shrimp and eggplant bites, and vinegar soaked coral (which I didn’t know was edible.)  After dinner we made our way to KTV, the nicest one in Liaocheng.  Serena and I sang Micheal Jackson and Joe’s parents rocked out to Chinese pop tunes.  At one point the lights went out and a couple of dancers came in performed a hair-whipping evocative dance for our entertainment, and then left as quickly as they had appeared.  Like I said, how the hell did I get here?


This is probably an attempt to bypass China’s lackadaisical copyright laws, but I’d like to think that it’s some sort of communist propaganda geared towards toddlers.  By the way, I never really pictured Pooh playing with symbols.  He is always seemed to me like more of the subdued type.

Westerners living in China occupy a curious existence. Depending on where you are and in what situation, you are part celebrity, part honored guest, part freak of nature. Not a single waking moment goes by that I’m not reminded of my alien status in China.  From the exultations of “hullo!” wherever I go, to the multiple requests for dinner dates and number exchanges, to the evening news featuring my visit to the Guanxian Pear Garden, one thing is clear, it’s a big deal that I’m here.

There’s an ego-centric side of all of us that loves that sort of attention, but, just the same as it is for real celebrities, it can get a little irksome.  Mostly it’s just small annoyances— I struggle sometimes not to glare at little huddles of juvenile Chinese boy as they point and giggle at me from afar, all with the same little stupid conceited smile. For the most part it’s easy enough to get used to.  But now and then I find myself tangled up in a situation where my identity as a foreigner, as an American, as a white male, as me, is being exploited for the benefit of other people.  Nothing illustrates this phenomenon better than a recent experience I had with my friend Tony.

Before I get into what happened between Tony and I, let me start out by saying that Tony is a good guy, a real good guy.  If it weren’t for Tony and a number of other students at Liaocheng University my time in China—especially my first few weeks—might have driven me to the edge of insanity or, worse yet, on a plane back to the States.  That said, of all my Chinese friends Tony is perhaps the most guilty of using my status as a celebrity/laowai to improve his own situation.  For the most part, I don’t mind.  I do my best to operate the way in which Chinese people do, and since Tony has helped me so much I’m usually happy to reciprocate.  Besides, often times it’s a win-win situation in which all that’s required of me is my presence.  Tony has introduced me to many friends who have bought me dinner, and he’s even helped me find a job as an English tutor.

A couple weeks into my semester in China I was walking with Tony on campus when a man on a motorcycle approached us and began talking to Tony.  Mr. Wang, as he likes to be called, has founded and managed a number of private English schools in the Liaocheng area, and has recently undergone a venture to start his first one within the city limits.  English schools in China are about as common as KFC’s, but those that employ and associate with foreigners are always far more profitable.  So when Mr. Wang saw Tony and me walking together he jumped at the opportunity.  Tony, who majored in English in college, was offered the job as manager of the school, because, as Tony put it, he had something that Mr. Wang needed: me.  While I myself will not actually be teaching at the school, Will, my Ghanaian friend at Liaocheng University, will be, and my contacts with other foreigners in Liaocheng is a great asset to the company.  Mr. Wang, by way of Tony, asked Will and I and our friend Serena, to be in a picture for the school.

While I frowned at their obvious perpetration of false advertisement, I agreed to be in the picture as a way to help Tony, and was even able to convince Serena, who is also not teaching at the school, to come out for the picture.  This was an infringement of my own values, and no doubt made me a little uncomfortable, but it required little effort on my part and went a long way in helping Tony’s business venture, (and after all this experience is all about stepping out of my comfort zone).

But then Tony asked me to hand out flyers for the school on the streets of Liaocheng, and that was the point at which I decided to draw the line.  I have discovered that the hardest part of being in China for me is the constant reminder of my alien (pun intended) status.  I do my best to embrace it, but I’m not going to lie, it can be tough not being treated like a normal human being all the time, and coupled with the fact that I would perpetrating the fraud of pretending that I myself was a teacher at the school, it was just too much.  You can treat me like a freak, you can ask me to suspend my own morals for the good of my friends, but I won’t do both at the same time.

My reaction shocked and disappointed Tony, so much so that he appeared at my dorm the next day bearing gifts and offering to take me out to lunch (a common way to mend a relationship gone wrong.)  I tried my best to explain to Tony why I didn’t want to hand out flyers for the school, but it wasn’t something that he could understand.  “In China,” he said, “if you are friends you will do anything to help the other person, even if it means doing something you are not comfortable with.”

This is the point at which Chinese and American cultures clash in the most fundamental of ways.  China is a communal society, where the well-being of the individual has much more to do with the well-being of those around him, whereas American society (Western society in general I suppose) is more about the individual.  Each side of the story has its up and down sides. You could say that Chinese people are more selfless than Americans, while at the same time you could say that Americans have more personal integrity and are unwilling to demean themselves for the betterment of others.  While I value the way in which they look out for each other, I wonder what this does for the self-esteem of an individual.  For my own personal mental health I know that the middle road is the best.  I will agree to do certain things, but when it’s taken too far I have to draw the line.

Read part II here.

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