“…Jiaohua Ji or Beggar’s Chicken is up next. The Jiangsu Province specialty is made by covering an entire chicken with clay and baking it for nearly six hours. The legend of its origin says the mud or clay, when cooked and cracked open, removes the bird’s feathers, completely revealing juicy meat.
Not everything is appealing. We shy away from the pig snouts, feet, knees, and ears, and I stare at a gelatinous mound of cubes shaking on a cook’s grill. Chao Menzi, a starch-based Dalian delicacy, is getting fried. Another alarming sight I’ve heard of before catches my attention. Piled high in a kettle are boiling Shi Dan; these eggs have fetuses in them that you have to crunch through. We keep walking…”
You’re late to the game, the lines for tickets are ridiculous. You’re losing hope of getting in and watching your favorite team. Until some dude in a ball cap and jeans saunters over to you and discreetly taps a bag he’s carrying and mumbles, “Tickets, man, need tickets?”
Buying from scalpers is a gamble, no doubt, but I’ll be honest, I did it with a few friends when we almost missed a game in South Korea two years ago. The seats were crappy, but we moved around and made do. Before that shady guy showed up we thought we’d lost out on chance to see the Twins playing, but it all worked out.
China has its own kind of scalpers, and just like everything else in this country full of contradictions, they take it to the extreme. Huang Niu, Yellow Cows, is the Mandarin term used to describe these folks who hang around bus and train stations. We’ve used them here from time to time, but never as a first resort.
Where China takes this idea and goes to the nth degree is at the banks, hospitals, and other civil service industries.
About a year ago a video on WieBo (Chinese Twitter) surfaced and brought this issue into the public forum. A young woman and her mother surrounded by patients stand in line at a hospital, and the young woman is yelling at this older lady. The older woman is one of the people who wake up early, get to the hospital and get the first tickets to see the specialist doctors. She’s not sick at all, and instead sells the ticket to the highest bidder. In the video the young woman, who is seeking treatment for her sick mother, yells at the scalper for scamming people like this. The scalper calmly replies that she does all the work. She gets up and comes early. The payment is for her work and time. Very practical, right?
Where this practicality crosses the line into illegal activity is when the hospital staff and the scalper collude on the practice. This is the part that is very hard to pin down because no one admits a thing. The specialists are the ones most want to see, but there are so many people who want to get into see them that it is pretty hard. Unless you get there early enough and are lucky enough. The other way is to know someone who can pull some strings.
That’s when these scalpers use their guanxi or connections with the workers to snare this sought-after ticket, all the while keeping it from other patients who should receive it. Totally wrong and totally illegal. But hard as hell to prove on a case by case basis.
The banks are another story altogether. More complex, these particular scalpers are called Zhong Jie, intermediaries, and perform more than just getting people quick tickets. The formal sounding name is fitting as you realize how institutionalized the whole system truly is. Read: Corrupt.
These Zhong Jie are customarily middle-aged women, but there are men among their ranks. Here’s how they work and how to engage their services. And why they seem like a necessary evil in the present day China.
In China, any official civil service that a citizen may need to use is rendered into a labyrinthine obstacle course that often leaves a person sweating, tired, and at their wit’s end due to the farce that is bureaucracy here. License, renting an apartment, paying utilities, buying property, banking—doing any of that here can make even the most self-actualized individual want to run into traffic.
Generally speaking, at any official building you can run into Zhong Jies. Stand in line for a minute or so and they will approach you on their own. Look around and you’ll find them standing by doorways or in the corners of the room chatting up the security guards. They are discreet but direct. They tell you what they can do and their price. You take them up on their offer or brave the “system” on your own.
The world of bank loans is how I entered unknowingly into this cycle of institutionalized corruption. A while back, my wife took out a loan to help her folks with a new apartment. We went to the bank and outside the doors a plump fifty-something-year-old Chinese woman with two purses met us. Xiao Ming talked to her respectfully, addressing her by her sir name with the title “Jie”—sister—after. Apparently Xiao Ming had met this woman at the housing bureau office. I had no idea who this lady was, but everyone else in the bank did.
As I quickly found out, she was a Zhong Jie, our intermediary for getting the loan at the bank. In the span of an hour and a half, she cut through a dozen lines, joked with workers while handing them our documents and a bit of money discreetly tucked between forms, and all the while assured us that everything was okay. I didn’t understand much of that morning, but it was clear that our Zhong Jie had saved us hours and hours of standing in lines and the guesswork of unclear instructions that the bank seemed to give just to screw with people. I saw several people waiting in lines, only to get to the counter and be told they’d filled out the wrong paper and needed to do it all over again, and, yes, wait in line. She helped us avoid all the pitfalls. It was like watching a slight of hand act where there were so many hands to keep your eyes on that eventually I just gave up and, when our Zhong Jie declared that a loan agent would call us in a few days, I just chalked it up to magic.
Come to find out later that Zhong Jies spend all their time at banks building up guanxi with bank employees. This is pretty much their “day job.” They do favors, give money, share food, anything to ensure a working business relationship. They are not employees at any of the places for which they provide services. The Zhong Jie then directs her customers to her “friend” and takes her cut (we paid 1,000RMB for our Zhong Jie’s service), and the bank worker also takes his share. But his comes from the loan itself. You see, there are set interests rates on loans, of course. These are annoying, but legal. The loan agent takes an extra percentage from your loan as his personal payment for providing you with the loan. This amount is divided up among the individuals involved in the process, like tip sharing at a restaurant. In Xiao Ming’s case, the bank worker took out 2 percent.
This happens all the time, in many banks around China. And is completely illegal.
A popular Chinese television show recently shed light on this issue. That’s happening a lot lately with T.V. shows. Love that directors are pushing the envelope more and more! The specific show I’m referencing is called “以人民的名义” – In the Name of the People.This is seriously one of the most popular shows in China right now, and it’s all about the government crackdown on graft. President Xi’s mission of weeding out the corrupt and upholding the “Chinese Dream” has become hot entertainment fodder. I’m sure this is just the beginning of a series of shows where greedy officials get taken down by Party-loving (that’s a capital P) detectives and watchdog citizens. Despite the heavy hand of the Communist Party all over the show, it is still pretty engaging. Relevant to this blog post is the episode where a bank manager gets busted for the exact process I just described, and she claims that it is such a widely practiced procedure that she had no idea it was even considered corruption.
How does that happen? In the case of these new Chinese shows, art is imitating life. At least the gritty, corrupt elements of it. It’s basically a mandate from the government.So then my question is how in the hell do people get so immersed in this septic mess of criminal behavior without even knowing it’s illegal?
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Back in 1978 when China began “opening up” economically, they coined a term for this sort of “off the books” income stream that emerged: Gray Income.
Teaching, tourism, the funeral, and medical industries are all areas that generate substantial “grey income.” This is not an exaggeration. Xiao Ming’s cousins just gave birth, and a few months ago while I drove with them to a hospital they got talking about how they have to give the anesthesiologist and the doctor delivering their babies hongbao to ensure they do a good job. I couldn’t believe what I heard. Questioning them, I found out that, it’s true, they felt they had to give the doctors and nurses red envelopes packed with money in order for them to DO THEIR JOBS. When I lost my cool over this news, everyone in the car just looked at me like I was a naïve child.
One of the cousins tried to give a red envelope to her doctor for a surgery, and when the surgeon turned it down it was a big deal. Turns out, the doctor just needed a favor from this cousin’s husband (who is a police officer) a short time later. Waiving the red envelope fee was her way of ensuring the favor would get done.
I used to live in an apartment where a public school teacher was a neighbor. Every weekend her place was packed with students. All day long I’d hear kids going up and down the hall to one of her weekend “classes.” Moonlighting like this is illegal, but that didn’t bother this teacher. And it doesn’t bother so many others that do the same exact illegal thing.
Some people caught in the cycle, people like those interviewed in this NPR article claim they can’t change the system, and to survive they need to play the game. This “fact of daily life in China” is alarming not because it is happening, but because EVERYONE believes it’s wrong on an ethical and moral level, but believe they can do nothing about it. So nothing changes.
There’s no doubt that people benefit from expedient service using Zhong Jies and Huang Nius. Heck, it’s downright entrepreneurial of them to use their time this way. But they’re near the bottom of the system that goes up and up. And that system is corrupt.
The people at the very bottom are the ones who need those loans, need those workers to do their damn jobs honorably.
The people at the bottom are people like me and my wife. Like you, probably.
Unless you’re a guilty bank worker in China, of course.
Excerpt: The Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrasebook & Dictionary sticks out of my back pocket. Pin Yin has been decoded during a few language classes, and some survival vocab arms me with the essentials. Time to put it all to use.
All my aspirations of being a language prodigy disappear the same time I ask a mall worker where the bathroom is and get a confused shake of the head in return. Bathroom, or as they usually say in China cesuo, toilet, is a very useful word to know. And I have to find one, fast.
Finally, when all hope seems gone, I cave and go with a term I’ve recently heard. “W.C.?” I ask in English. He points me in the right direction.
Round two. I’m in a restaurant that has a menu with pictures. Point and say, “Wo yao zhe ge,” and things are looking good. Chinese isn’t so hard. I got this! But I don’t want the hot water that everyone else in China drinks. I want cold water. “Bing shui,” I order.
Blank stare in return. Okay, my tones are wrong. Once more with different inflections. The waitress is looking at me like I’m requesting that the chef sprinkle salt on his leg before he cuts it off and serves it. Again, I give in and resort to gestures. I make fists and hold them up while shaking like I’ve somehow found myself magically outside in the middle of winter without a jacket. “Ah! Bing shui!” she exclaims, nodding as if that’s not what I’ve been saying for two minutes straight.
Most kids have chores around the house. I grew up needing to clean my room, empty all the trash bins, and wash the dishes every other day. My brother took care of his room, vacuumed, and did the dishes on the days I didn’t. As I got older, cutting the front, side, and back yard got added to my routine. Pretty standard stuff, and I’m sure many other kids grew up doing work like this.
But my step-dad is also a carpenter, and we managed and maintained the duplexes we rented out to tenants ourselves. So instead of hiring someone to repaint the apartments, spackle cracks in the drywall, pull up and relay carpeting, retile bathrooms, fix water heaters, stop leaking pipes, pour and set new cement steps, build a back porch, and re-shingle the roof, we did it. My brother often helped, and so did my best friend. The more hands involved, the quicker we’d finish and go ride our bikes and eat ice cream at the Twisty Treat a block away. The running joke was that my step-dad had no ability to estimate time. If he said something would take an hour, that usually meant at least three. A few hours? My afternoon was shot. Understanding this was important and helped focus my attention. I had incentive to pay attention and be efficient so the job could be completed and my weekend wasn’t lost.
Now, years later, with the gift of hindsight, I can see the value in all that time I spent working. Don’t tell my step-dad I said that! It’s shaped me into a confident, competent man who isn’t afraid to work hard and try to fix something on my own before resorting to the Yellow Pages (Or whichever APP has currently replaced the unwieldy tome).
Who would have thought that moving to China would make me feel as helpless as an infant trying to use a Milwaukee 2705-22 M18 cordless drill?
Moving to a new country so vastly different than America kicked me in the gut those first few weeks. Even now, after more than five years, it likes to take cheap shots that remind me I’m still little more than a toddler here.
It’s so frustrating when you don’t know where to buy the right tools for a household upkeep job. Go to the New Mart where everything is up for haggling and the quality isn’t guaranteed? Everyone but you using WeChat Pay or ZhiFu Bao to pay for everything? The shower drain tube old and clogged? What store is that in? The place where you pay utility bills look like a madhouse and you’re not sure where to stand? Not sure how to use DiDi Che (Uber in China)? Trying to send money home at the bank, but the answers to your questions aren’t making sense? Cell phone getting weird messages and you need to check it out at the China Mobile location? Not even Lonely Planet can help with all these issues.
All of these tasks and more pop up when you’re an expat, and if you’re used to troubleshooting life on your own, having to rely on others to do it abroad can be a stressful, humbling experience. Picking up the language helps in some of the cases, but not all. In some situations it’s just about knowing how things are done or where to find what you’re looking for. This just takes time and effort.
Some people don’t mind this. They view it as a release from responsibility, a vacation in some ways. Like going to a hotel where you don’t have to worry about cleaning or making your bed. So many expat communities develop around companies with packages and housing support – even drivers – that take care of these parts of life. I heard about a woman here, a trailing spouse for one of the Intel guys, who relied so much on her driver that she couldn’t even manage walking on her own down the same few streets she was chauffeured through every day without getting lost. Paying for an Ayi – a woman to do house work and cook – is really cheap, and so there are those who don’t even do laundry or sweep their own floors anymore. Some people even refuse to shop anywhere that’s not an import store, spending tons of cash on products that can be found three times cheaper at local joints. Like tigers in big, foreign cages, they pace back and forth, wearing out the same old paths.
Despite the above paragraph, I’ve got no judgement here. To each their own and all that. That life, the one free of those daily hassles that are just unavoidable “back home,” is a peaceful one. Transplanting yourself and maybe even your family to a place with an ocean between what you knew and what is new is not easy, and anything that makes it a softer landing is helpful.
That being said, after more than two or three years somewhere the excuses sort of begin to run out. Decide to stay for an extended period and life has a way of creeping up on you in padded Ninja slippers and chopping you right in a pressure point that drops you back to reality. You’ve got to start reaching back into that arsenal of life experience to find that handyman you know you can be, that self-reliant, resourceful degree-holder that blazes his own trail, or at least can read the signs pointing him down the right trail needed to get things done.
Where am I?
Sometimes I wander down the right trail feeling self-sufficient and other times I’m left looking for the APP that will make life easier.
I’m squeezed in next to a mix of humanity on the Qing Gui, the Light Rail Train, all of us on our way home from a day’s work. From where I’m standing I watch Dalian’s Development Zone flit by. Big Black Mountain, half-finished apartment complexes, small companies with big neon signs, restaurants, a sauna, a McDonald’s, and the relatively new Wanda Plaza that opened last year. It’s all so shiny.
It’s my stop next, so I shimmy around a woman holding a baby. Pressed against one another shoulder-to-shoulder, hip-to-hip, it feels like we’re cattle in a too-small corral. Some of the scents wafting around in the train car drive the simile home. A passenger has recently been to a fish market, and I’m not convinced it’s fresh, either. A sour, meaty odour smacks me in the nose, and I notice the mother unraveling an orange sausage that looks mildly radioactive and smells like it’s been setting in the sun all day. It’s called xiang chang (perfumed sausage) but I can’t imagine anyone ever wanting to dab that onto their body.
A burly looking guy with short black and grey hair sits on the bench to the side with his chin tucked to his chest and aggressive alcohol fumes floating off him. The smell is unmistakable—Baijiu. It’s the national alcohol of choice for the Chinese, a rice (and sometimes corn) wine that can strip an engine or get a shuttle into space.”
This year February 27 is er yue er, or 2 Month 2. The traditional name is much cooler, though. Dragon Raising its Head Festival, Long Tai Tou.
One of the traditions goes that for the entire month of the lunar January no one cuts their hair. It’s only after the Dragon has raised its head and the rains come that getting your ears lowered is recommended. Dunno why, and no one in my family can explain it sufficiently. Also, if you do cut your hair before the appointed time, your uncle dies. Yeah, I don’t think they can get much more random than that with these holidays.
As I’ve mentioned before, every Chinese holiday seems to also coincide with a family member’s birthday. No one appears to find this suspicious. Today was my San Yi’s. This is Xiao Ming’s middle aunt. Her new son-in-law, Long Hong Jiang, set the meal up, but San Yi paid. In Chinese culture it’s a custom for the birthday guest of honor to treat the family. In the West the birthday girl/boy pays for nothing, but here they foot the bill.
Every time we all get together for someone’s birthday, people give toasts. Apparently I’ve been voted the member best suited to represent XiaoMing, her dad, mom, and me. It hadn’t occurred to me until about ten minutes before I spoke that I’d have to give a toast. Due to my age and position in the family, XiaoMing and I, along with the other cousin and her husband, sat closest to the door (this is basically the lowest spot at a Chinese dinner table), and so that put me at exactly halfway through the toasts. Luckily, I’ve been through this before, and I sort of had something I could say.
“San Yi,” I began as I stood with my glass of wine. “Today is your birthday. But today is also LongTaiTou. I’m always learning about Chinese holidays. America doesn’t have so many fun holidays like this! Chinese people and their holidays are great! The most important part of the day, though, is that it’s your birthday. We are all together for it. I wish you a happy birthday!”
Not so much with the sentimentality, but it was understood by all – a big deal for me with my bad tones – and San Yi appreciated it. XiaoMing said it was good, and I tend to defer to her in all things Mandarin. Several others toasted, and we continued to eat. Eventually the individual toasts began. It wasn’t long before I spoke again, to Xiao Yi, this time. She’s the youngest aunt. Turns out that she just retired, for the second time, so that she can help the cousins raise their babies (two of them are pregnant). She posted this on WeChat, but apparently I was the only one who noticed. I mentioned it to XiaoMing earlier and she had no idea, so when Xiao Yi talked to the family, I actually knew what she was talking about.
As she stood next to me, I raised my glass and toasted her, saying “So many people post on WeChat, Xiao Yi, but I usually don’t even look at their posts. But when you posted, I wanted to know what was going on. You are family, and this is what family does: we care about each other and want to know what’s going on. That’s family.”
This moved her. She then proceeded, tears brimming her eyes, to toast me.
She said such nice things about me as a person, family member, man, and husband that I can’t repeat them here. Her sincerity and love radiated off her.
It’s daunting when others see such value and worth in you. Makes you want to be worthy of their praise.
And here you thought it was just a Monday in February.
After reading an article that claimed John Cena (WWE Wrestler) was a proficient Mandarin speaker, I had to find proof. And so I did. I saw that interview with Mark Zuckerburg where he did his Q&A in Mandarin. I’ve even heard one-time Presidential Candidate Jon Huntsman speaking Mandarin. Apparently at some point in the recent past people up and started studying China’s official language like it was the crazy aunt’s dish she brought to a cookout that everyone swore they’d never try, but then did and loved it despite the strange smells and occasional indigestion. Too much? Anyway…
Whenever I hear someone who isn’t Chinese speaking Mandarin I immediately want to know their story. Why’d they study it? How and where did they learn? What tricks could they recommend for learning new vocabulary? Just picking it up is a pretty unrealistic sentiment when it comes to Mandarin, at least if you want to move beyond Survival Chinese, so to study means to put in serious man hours (are we saying people hours? Person hours?). When I hear non-Chinese people speaking Mandarin I also think of my first days learning it.
Probably not the best way to study…
Probably Not the Best Way to Study…
Jayland Learning – the school that brought me to China – offered two one-hour classes a week. Every month one of the Chinese staff members taught the class, and this rotating teacher system created interesting incidents during lunch and dinner time. Mian Zi, or reputation, is highly regarded in Chinese culture, and even though there are about a million cultural gems that people pick and choose to follow in modern China, the influence and consideration of Mian Zi is one of the constants. There are all sorts of little intricacies to wielding and applying Mian Zi and I’m sure I still don’t know it all, but I do know a few things.
Make Your Teacher Look Good is one of the first tenets. So after about a week or two of classes the rest of the staff got it into their heads that starting a tradition of quizzing the lao wai would be in everyone’s best interest. From around the long wooden table questions in Mandarin flew toward me – Ni chi fan le ma? Ni dui zhongguo shenghuo xiguan ma? Zhe shi shenme (asked by pointing at random stuff)? Women de xuexiao you ji ge zhongjiaoshi? Waimian de tianqi zenmeyang? I could answer some, but not all. Getting one right brought a smile to my teacher’s face; wrong meant they sat a bit lower in their chair and got razzed a bit for their student’s mediocre performance.
Trying to simultaneously endear myself to my teacher and progress with my language study, I began translating super short stories and parables into Mandarin in order to recite them around the table. It was a big hit. Not only did the move literally get applause from time to time, my teachers quickly began to swell with pride. Even the school’s Ayi, a woman we all called Da Jie – big sister – took an interest in my story-telling. One short parable in particular made an impression. It was about a Dog who almost convinces a Wolf to give up his wild life to live with him and his master. The Wolf nearly goes for it until he realizes that to get the free food and shelter he’d have to give up his freedom and wear a leash. More than a month after I told it the first time, I heard Da Jie quoting the last line: “I’d rather die skinny and free than live fat and a slave.”
Notebooks full of words and grammar structures I’ve more or less forgotten and relearned over the years are stacked on my bookshelves. About a dozen titles like HSK Vocabulary Workbook, Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words, and Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide accompany the notebooks and suggest to anyone who ganders at them that I am completely fluent. I am not.
But I would consider myself a bilingual. Most would consider the term Bilingual to mean complete fluency in an additional language, but apparently there is a continuum. The field of study focused on Second or Additional Language Acquisition and Bilingualism has all sorts of words like additive and subtractive, coordinate, passive, balanced, and about a half dozen others to categorize those who use more than one language throughout their life. A big part of me – maybe the part that will push me to pursue a PhD in that area? – is fascinated by the different ways to analyze the role language plays in the lives of people, but another part of me just wants to be able to get a point across to my in-laws without them turning to my wife and asking “Ta shuo sha?” What did he say?
Living abroad, it’s no surprise that most of the people I talk with and work with speak more than one language. Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese, Tagalog, Dutch, Romanian, Korean, Mandarin, French – words from all of these languages crisscross and intertwine with English daily, and I love it. Maybe one day I’ll get to that stage some call Balanced Bilingualism, but until then I’ll just keep plugging away.
What language(s) do you speak? How and why’d you study?