Talking With Xiao Ming – 和晓明的对话

LastNightOut.JordanInChina

The other night was my school’s end of the year dinner. It was at this new Japanese style spa/restaurant/hotel/resort/compound thing. Yeah, I’m not sure how to refer to it, obviously. There was a buffet, our school’s teacher-band played, and people gave speeches to those who are leaving at the end of this year. I gave a speech for a friend that I’ll miss (but will visit in Korea), and tried not to make a fool of myself at the mic. Oh, and we all had to wear sandals the whole time.

The next morning Xiao Ming and I had one of our talks about the night.

Not an I’m-in-the-dog-house talk. A culture-differences-pop-up-everywhere talk. I love the second type of talks, and mostly actively avoid the former.

For four years Xiao Ming and I have been attending events with my colleagues – birthdays, dinners, bar nights, anniversaries, memorials, concerts, and graduations. After nearly every single one she and I sort of debrief the event.

I’m constantly amazed at how objective, attentive, and curious she is about the world around her, so much so that I actually record some of our conversations because I don’t trust myself to remember what she says faithfully. And I do want to remember. Her point-of-view as a highly educated Chinese woman with extended experience abroad and a deep, objective love of her culture and country makes her a fantastic conversationalist on most topics related to China.

“Your co-workers are so free and expressive,” she said to me. Her opinion piqued my interests and I followed up, asking her what she meant.

What follows are parts of our conversation. All of the requisite PC statements are in place here – we’re not sociologists, harbor no agenda that would benefit anyone by championing one culture at the expense of another, know that generalizations are not entirely accurate all the time, and welcome all constructive dialogue that might spring up around any of these topics.

 

Thoughts on Expression

After crying through several of the farewell speeches, Xiao Ming told me that in China something as heartfelt as personal, touching, sentimental goodbyes like that would never happen. You’d get printed out speeches where people read completely from paper with little emotional register in their voice. You’d get words like “you’re great,” “good job,” and “good luck” with no humorous anecdotes, no choking up, no passion.

Inhibitions often control the masses everywhere, but maybe more so here. I myself am not much of a dancer without some liquid courage, but Xiao Ming says that so many more Chinese people are lead-footed because of culture differences. Dancing, singing, playing in bands, these are not Chinese habits. Our staff band, she claims, is something that wouldn’t exist in a Chinese company due to the workers not being “professionals.” My colleagues are good, but they’re definitely not moonlighting for Bon Jovi on the weekends. That doesn’t stop them from putting on great shows at many of our school events and getting teachers out on the dancefloor. Save for the nearly soundproof rooms at KTVs, Spring Festival events, and contest television shows, Chinese workers don’t perform much on a regular basis.

Sentimental statements of gratitude and love are simply not a part of the conversation for families and close friends. Any culture book about China will tell you this, and it is mostly true. Xiao Ming has no memory of her folks telling her that they love her, nor would she feel comfortable telling them that she loves them. They don’t even thank each other or say goodbye on the phone before hanging up! By comparison, every time my mom WeChats us she makes sure to tell Xiao Ming and me that she loves us.

 

Thoughts on Age and Decision-Making

I work with some pretty great people of all ages, and so many of them are full of a zest for life that quite frankly puts me, at only 30, to shame. Some of my co-workers are in their fifties and they dance, laugh, sing, and party like they’re still in college. Women of the same age in China dance a bit, too, but only in the city squares and only when they’re lead by people doing choreographed movements. There’s no way in hell they’d be in bars or dancing at parties.

“Old Yellow Cows,” Xiao Ming calls these types of women. Apparently a term used to describe some of the generation that’s in their 50s and 60s now. “When they don’t have anything to do they just stand there like they’re mooing, they have no entertainment. How many times has my mom said she wants to travel, but then at the last minute she changes her mind? She’ll watch the kids, or do something else. If she does go she comes back complaining about spending money,” Xiao Ming says without pulling her punches.

Younger people, mostly women since Xiao Ming likes to ease drop on them, constantly worry about not being married, losing weight, or shopping. Sit in Starbucks a bit and you can overhear conversations from those around 30 and under and they almost always revolve around obsessively wanting to find a significant other, going on blind dates, and-or their latest romantic fiasco. If they aren’t fretting about who their Mr/Mrs. Right is then they’re posting to WeChat about losing weight while also taking Food Porn shots of their daily meals. Or they’re just flaunting their newest bargain buy with selfies of perplexing angles.

Younger Westerners just don’t seem as bogged down by the same concerns, she theorizes.

I’ve talked to Xiao Ming about how financial burdens can seriously hinder choices in America, and how bills can all but annihilate your day-to-day happiness, but she still feels that Americans tend to have more flexibility than her countrymen and women.

“There’s so many times when I interact with your co-workers and I have these thoughts,” she tells me. “Like the other day when I asked Sherry when she and Ryan were leaving and she said they were all packed up and ready to start their new life next week in Singapore. You know, it’s their life, and I don’t totally want to do that, but I do admire that. They have the choice and chance to change their life. Their life is light, no burden. They can stay somewhere for a few years and then pack up and leave. Even Pat and Cassady. They have two kids and they are free, too. Nothing in their life makes you feel like they have a big stone on their heart. But Chinese people are different. They will always think about how to be stable. Find a house, a job. Settle down and focus on their kid.”

“Even your older co-workers are so free. You can tell they live for themselves. They’re confident. Happy. I can’t even do that. I can’t stop thinking about how other people will judge me. So many Chinese people are this way. Very few Chinese people live for themselves. Even the most selfish actually do things in their life for other peoples’ eyes and judgement. There’s always a thing you have to get done or follow. Like on WeChat you can see that they post about finding a husband, losing weight, or what they eat so others can see.”

“Also like your co-workers in the band. They played instruments and sang. None of them are professional, right? I don’t see Chinese people do this if they’re not professional. They don’t play like that just to relax. Unless it’s KTV, they won’t, and that isn’t real because the machine helps your singing. They can’t be in a group and be themselves.”

 

Thoughts on Education

“I think this is connected to the way the kids are educated. Even with something like music it’s not about enjoyment. Chinese teachers won’t just let students play songs to get interested. They will force them to do the Doe, ray, me, fa, so, la, tee again and again for a month. There’s no creativity or passion. We can be great students, but we can’t apply the equation or function in the real world. Everything is too practical. Teachers think they need to train the kids to answer the questions as fast as possible. You know that even for GaoKao preparation the teachers will show the students how to answer the questions without even reading the whole sentence. It’s all test-taking skills, not about the knowledge itself.”

When I ask her what she thinks of this Xiao Ming says without hesitating, “I think this way of education kills the intelligence and innovation of students.”

“I thought it was only in schools, but since I teach in college now I see that it’s even there, too. Some majors are better than others, but still most are the same. I attend meetings and the heads of these departments just focus on what score will get you what job. Everything is about the score. They list and rank people for everything!”

“They had this so-called good student who gave a speech about how he was ashamed that he couldn’t go to Tsinghua (one of the best in China) like his brother. In the speech he talked about how important it was to get the scores, how hard he had to work, and he sounded very proud of himself. But I thought it was all bullshit. It wasn’t about the knowledge at all. He made it sound like everything is about fighting and the final result, not the process. No one talks about what you learn, what you can contribute to society, how the information makes you useful. They are still hooked on their scores, they’re still in GaoKao mentality. Maybe this explains a lot. About how Chinese people can’t innovate and why they copy so much. It comes from the education. They’re made into cows by the culture and what their parents tell them.”

“I can see this boy’s future. He will graduate and try to find a good job, a good wife, and won’t be able to change anything or be truly productive. The only kids that will be different will be the ones who aren’t great in this school system. Sometimes they’re naughty and they seem very strange to people, but they will become successful and useful people. I feel that even though you have people like this in America, some who just follow and others who stand out, in China most are followers. In America even if they’re not great, at least they have their own thoughts and personality.”

“No one can just express themselves here. It’s like in the speeches. Most of your coworkers spoke without reading from paper the whole time, but even our president can’t do that. He reads directly from his paper. And he never smiles!”

“We never had a charismatic leader, at least beyond that first generation of New China. Today they just don’t have that leader quality about them anymore. They can’t even give a speech well. And when I attended your school’s graduations these last couple years I feel that some of your students are different. It’s clear they have picked up a part of the American culture when they express themselves. A lot of the kids who studied in your school are very good. They have charisma because of the way they were educated. I think that is a great spirit.”

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Thoughts on Parenting

“You can’t imagine how often I think of this when I interact with your co-workers. That’s why I always want to go. I don’t always talk or something, but I always watch and observe. I’m trying to understand them, understand your culture. It’s just so deeply different.”

“And I think all this is the same thing, the same phenomena come from the same root. It’s the philosophy of life, the way we think. Your people are all about being yourself. But the thing that Chinese parents often say to their kids is ‘kan bieren jia haizi,’ which means ‘look at other people’s children.’ They want you to be the same. You’re always told to follow examples.”

“Like the woman who works in the little store in our complex the other day. She was complaining about how worried she was about her son because he is getting 80s in class. She’s so worried about his future, and he’s so young, in fourth grade. And 80s aren’t bad! She said she’s so worried that he will become a useless person. It’s her main concern in life right now. So I told her that it’s okay, to calm down. It will be fine. But this is how obsessed Chinese parents are.”

“For Chinese parents everything is about their kid,” she continues. “If the kid fails in study the parents will feel like failures. They’ll feel hopeless. You can listen to the middle-age men and women talking about their children. They talk about needing to buy them a house, get them a car. They’re obsessed. If it’s a married couple they talk about this, but if it’s a younger person they talk about clothes, shopping, places they’ve been. It’s just, I feel that so many people now have no spirit. I don’t know why. Is it because we were farmers for so long? Is it just a farmer’s mentality?”

There’s no way to answer her last question, or at least I am hopelessly without an answer, so she takes a step back and considers again the role of the parent.

“The kid’s future is his. That’s the way it should be. Er sun zi you er sun fu, ‘your son and grandsons will have their own luck’ is a Chinese phrase that people should remember, but parents try so hard to control things.”

 

Closing Thoughts

It’s at about this point in the conversation that we pause and just sort of look at the people in the coffee shop. Who are we? Two over-caffeinated yuppies with too much education bashing everything around us like we have the answers? Maybe. But it beats playing video games and watching bad television.

 

P.S.

Look what a senior made me!!! She surprised me with it on her last day. Very touching!

 

That Time I Thought I’d Die in China

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Somewhere on the lower right side, in that dark space, are two spots that should not be there. Those are those the kidney stones of death.

“I roll out of bed and crash to the floor in severe pain at 11 p.m. I cannot stand. Hobbling to the bathroom, I open the faucet and splash cold water on my face. A deep, sharp pain erupts in my side and my back breaks out in a sheen of sweat. I hover over the toilet, not sure what is about to happen. A ripple of pain drops me to my knees just as I hurl the contents of my stomach into the basin. Again and again.

Tears mix with sweat and six words become a mantra in my mind: I’m going to die in China.”

Read the rest of this at Verge Magazine’s website – 

http://www.vergemagazine.com/work-abroad/blogs/2049-that-time-i-thought-i-d-die-in-china.html

A Language Litany – 语言祷文

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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.

Originally published by Verge Magazine.

Read the whole thing at:

http://www.vergemagazine.com/work-abroad/blogs/2005-a-language-litany.html#.WOHobc9NzLQ.twitter

 

SelfReliance4.JordanInChina

Dragon Raising his Head - 龙抬头

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And I thought I was cranky after a haircut! Source: Wall Street Journal

Today is a good day to cut your hair, if you’re Chinese.

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.

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…At least we didn’t have a table full of dumplings.

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.

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I have no idea how many “Gan Bei’s” happened….

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.

Travel With Purpose – Verge Magazine

 

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“I’m not sure when the zombie dreams stopped.

It used to be that at least twice a month I fought off assaults from the undead as soon as I closed my eyes. Trapped in my apartment building, locked in a crowded bus, sprinting through the streets as a horde stumbled, limped and lumbered after me.

Any psychoanalyst worth his salt can tell you why I had the dreams; I live in China.

From a numbers approach, China can easily overwhelm. People Mountain, People Sea, the first Chinese idiom I learned—”ren shan ren hai”—basically means there are people as far as the eye can see everywhere you go. After five and a half years, though, I’ve mostly figured out how to make things work between me and the 1.3 billion people who became my neighbours.”

Originally Published by Verge Magazine – Check out the whole thing at: http://www.vergemagazine.com/work-abroad/blogs/1983-forging-my-china-life.html

This is an excerpt from a recent blog post I wrote for Verge Magazine, a site dedicated to what they call “travel for change.” The magazine helps people study, travel, and work abroad, and their message of “Travel with purpose” is extremely appealing for those who like to get out in the wide open world for more than just photo ops.

 

The Little New Year -小年快乐

He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.

Nope. Not talking about St. Nick. I’m talking about the other Big Brother of the Holiday Season – The Kitchen God, Zao WangYe.

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You’re telling me he sneaks back into the kitchen to steal his wife’s Kit Kats?!

This guy hangs around your home all year, keeping tabs on the family, and then reports back to his boss (the Jade Emperor) just how dysfunctional things have gotten for you and your kin. All this happens about a week before the Chinese New Year so the Jade Emperor can determine just how much fortune you deserve in the coming new year. Sounds like a snitch to me.

The Chinese feel the same, so what some will do is smear honey on his picture (usually hanging in the kitchen) in order to sweeten the message he delivers. Traditional sticky candy – Zao Tang – is also given to children so that their lips get sealed and they can’t spill the beans. Then the picture or effigy of the Kitchen God is burned so that he can carry his gossip back up to Heaven.

Because of the proximity to the Chinese New Year celebrations, this day is dubbed the Little New Year, and marks the beginning of the festivities for many Chinese. Presentations and performances are shown on TV, WeChat messages serving as heralds for the holiday season assault your phone, and, of course, families gather to eat jiaozi – dumplings.

Always dumplings.

The Little New Year was Friday, and it happened to also be XiaoYi Fu’s birthday (Xiao Ming’s youngest aunt’s husband’s familial title). On closer inspection, most of the older generation in the Liu family tend to have birthdays that conveniently fall on Lunar Calendar holidays. Xiao Ming suspects the dates are made up since the grandparents died young in some cases or couldn’t remember the specific date beyond the season and year. We went over to her parents’ place and had dinner with everyone. Pretty standard.

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He actually wanted to wear the crown.

Then someone busted out their WeChat and started opening digital Hong Bao (Red Envelopes). Red Envelopes during the holidays in China means money. WeChat has a new(?) feature where the sender can decide on a sum of money to give away and the number of times it should be divided, but that sum will be randomly divided up into unknown amounts. Say you send 10 RMB to your family group in six envelopes. Everyone opens the envelopes. Some will get ten cents while others may get six RMB. For about thirty minutes everyone laughed and competed with one another to see who could get the most (and of course made fun of the one who got the least).

I got One RMB.

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Fortune Smiles Upon Me!

Next weekend is the Chinese New Year, the big one. The Year of the Rooster is upon us. It’s Xiao Ming’s year, and, as tradition dictates, she has to wear red undergarments – socks, underwear and bra, long-johns – for the entire first lunar month. I, on the other hand, can get away with just wearing red socks.

P.S. Random Archery Pics:

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Few weeks ago we found a cool traditional archery place.

Chinese Parents -中国父母

Being married to a Chinese woman isn’t exactly like those melodramatic TV shows or the ridiculously formulaic Korean dramas that people can’t seem to get enough of here.

Ever watch one?

Turn on the tube and chances are you’ll catch one of five types of show:

Dynastic China with subtle, watered-down undertones of political commentary, a World War II series that usually makes the Kuomintang out to be insufferable fools and the Japanese as subhuman monsters while the Communists are righteously wielding inferior weapons and still coming out on top, a medical drama with absurdly handsome and young people staring very sternly at one another, a game show where people just straight up do stupid shit for really nothing but the audience’s applause, or the Korean family drama.

Korean dramas usually follow the boy meets girl story, and then they throw a wammy of boy meets girl’s family and must win over the overbearing parents. Follow that up with boy marries girl. Then girl must win over the overbearing mother of the boy. Once they all like each other there is usually an issue with the pregnancy or stress put on the girl for a boy (the more desired). And in the midst of it all someone gets themselves tossed into the hospital because of a sickness or some stupid behavior that in the end brings to light that they all just love each other and want good things for the family. Yay – happily ever after.

I may have sidetracked myself.

My point is that being married to a Chinese woman isn’t always like that, but dealing with parents in this culture does require some flexibility. Xiao Ming’s mom and dad have always welcomed me, but man can they push my buttons, too.

I come home one day a few weeks back and ol’ mom and pop are there hanging out with Xiao Ming. Her dad motions for me to follow him into my office, so I do. We stand in front of the dresser and he points to it, saying that he fixed it. I open the drawers and sure enough they slide open and shut seamlessly. The flimsy bottoms had begun to bow and made those motions difficult. Great! Fixed. Thanks, Dad.

Except the second thing I noticed was that everything in the drawers were now somehow reorganized. I don’t just have a dresser of clothes. I use three drawers for other things like nik-naks, notebooks, etc. Nothing too crazy personal, but still, personal. To fix the dresser he had to take everything out and then to put it back the way he did, he had to carefully think about how to put items where. So he just went through all my stuff.

If you’re thinking to yourself, Jordan, he fixed the dresser. You’re right. Absolutely. If I were a better person, I’d see that and stop there. I’m not, and I didn’t.

I pulled Xiao Ming to the side, told her I appreciated the help. I didn’t ask for it, but, sure, thanks.
Side note – I grew up working on most weekends helping my stepdad maintain our rentals. I know how to do home maintenance. And, yes, it does bother me to have someone in my home doing things I can do myself. That make me a small man? Fine. I own that.

So I tell Xiao Ming that I’m uncomfortable with the way it all went down. They pop over all the time unannounced, and even come in and fiddle around when we’re not home from time to time. Whatever. No issues. But going through my dresser, even to fix it, was something I’m not okay with.

Xiao Ming gets it. She even admits that she told her father not to do it because I wouldn’t like it. Love her. She knows me. But I’m still seeing red. I have to say something, I tell her. To him. Right now. No, no, she says, but I don’t give in.

I greet him in the living room – damn he’s a small guy – and I very politely thank him for helping with the dresser. But, I add, next time – oh no, he senses my tone and is bowing his head with that uncomfortable smile – I’d like to fix something like that myself. He nods and I walk back to my office like a horrible troll that’s collected a tax for walking over his bridge. Immediately I feel crappy. He does, too, and I can hear him talking to Xiao Ming about it.

What should I have done? That was my line.

In the end, it blows over. After all, we’re family!

And today I come home to a house with a few lights on that I know I turned off. Strange. I go into the bathroom to wash my face and get a shower since I’m sweaty from the gym. Can’t do that. The handle for the bathroom sink is missing.

And the drawers under the sink are sitting oddly. I pull on one and it falls out. The tracks it’s supposed to be on are sticking out of the trash, all rusted and old looking. Obviously Xiao Ming’s father has been here.

So apparently he plans to fix the bathroom sink and the drawers. True, both are due for an upgrade, but they were manageable. A call to Xiao Ming to see if she knows anything. Nope. Her dad has just pulled one of his ninja moves. So now instead of having a sink that works and one that I can fix on the weekend, I have no sink and I have to wait until he feels like finishing what he’s started in case I upset him like I did last time when I asked him to stop fixing things.

As I typed this he sent a message to Xiao Ming –

         告诉Jordan,卫生间里的水龙头坏了。我明天买新的换上。
         Tell Jordan, the bathroom’s sink head is broken.
          I’ll buy a new one and put it on tomorrow.

Yup, I’m a rotten person.

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Welcome to the family. Just so you know, dinner is at five every night, and, um, well, I’m retired so I’ll be sneaking over to your house as often as possible.

Xiao Ming has her own battles with her mother, though. She gets on Xiao Ming for everything from our habit of getting delivery most nights to driving habits. She’s always giving Xiao Ming grief about not cooking a lot, about how the apartment could be cleaner (It’s pretty damn clean!), and making Xiao Ming call her everyday just so her mother knows she made it home from work. We eat with them usually once every two weeks, sometimes less. I don’t know, but for me that seems like a good amount for most adult children. Of course her mother makes her feel bad that we don’t eat over there most nights like her cousins eat with their parents. The fact that the cousins still live with their parents and don’t work the same hours as we do doesn’t seem to affect this sentiment at all.

I couldn’t imagine life here without the whole Liu Clan. Everyone from the quiet, meddling father and nagging but caring mother to the fussy aunts and noisy uncles makes life here richer and more meaningful.