This past Saturday my family dog Abbey passed away at the age of seventeen years and four months. Aside from the typical effects of old age, she was doing well until two weeks ago when she started getting really sick. The last time I saw her was this past July. If anybody wants to make donations, or do anything in Abbey’s memory, please make a donation to Wayside Waifs, the animal shelter where we found Abbey 15 years ago. I have also put up a gallery of pictures of Abbey up on benross.net.
It’s late afternoon in a crowded shopping district anywhere in China. After buying some Chinese tea and scarfing down a Big Mac, you are walking back to the bus stop when suddenly out of the blue you hear a voice coming from a Chinese guy with a baseball hat and a Yao Ming jersey walking your direction: “HAA—LOW!” After two and a half years in China, there is not a single word in the English language that I detest as much as the one which is the first and possibly only word known by many of the world’s non-English speakers.
Of the many common annoyances which come with living in China, the constant “hello’s” are one I still have not been able to get over. Here’s how it works. You are walking nonchalantly down a crowded street when a young guy (of the hundreds of times this has happened, it has never once been a female) turns to you with a grin on his face, and just as he passes you, yells “HAA—LOW.” What comes out usually sounds more like the word “hollow” than it does like “hello.”
When I first got to China, I was often confused, my first reaction thinking that the hello-wers were simply people whom I had briefly met before, but couldn’t remember (Fuqing was a small place like that). Later, I postulated that the “hello’s” were simply a kind gesture, so as to say “Welcome to China our foreign friend” or something along those lines. I didn’t hear the full story until one night I was walking around downtown Fuqing with my Chinese friend Yueting, when a group of teenage boys with spiky hair and warm-up suits, passed us bringing with them a chorus of “HAAA-LOWWW.” Yueting turned to me and angrily said “I hate that,” and pointed out that Chinese people never greet strangers (this is true) and that the “hello’s” were purely mocking in nature. To put it simply, it would be like me walking around the streets in Kansas City, and whenever I see a Chinese person (or any Asian for that matter) yelling “Chinaman” at them. I’m sure this has happened at points in US history.
I should mention that the “hello’s” come in several different flavors, and aren’t always inherently mocking in their intent. There is the occasional student who passes me on the street, probably freshly out of English class, who gives me a casual “hello,” not in attempt to make a joke, but simply to be polite, or as a small opportunity to use the English he has learned in school, albeit such a small morsel. There is also that eager English learner who will accost any foreigner in the street in attempt to strike up conversation to practice their English. This, although annoying at times, is at least respectful, and doesn’t come with any condescending feelings. Then there are the parents who eagerly push their children to “say ‘hello’ to the foreigner” as if I am some kind of zoo animal. However, I would estimate that 80% of the “hello’s” I receive, fall into the mocking category.
In addition to “hello” there is also the occasional (although less and less these days) shout of “lao wai,” which literally means “old outside” or more accurately “foreigner.” “Laowai” is a complicated term, and contrary to the belief of many laowai, it’s connotation is not always negative. It’s often used in conversation as a convenient abbreviation for the technical term for foreigner, “wai guo ren,” which literally means “outside country person.”
In a completely isolated instance, one time I was walking around a downtown Fuqing, when I passed a group of teenage boys. Just as I passed, out from the crowd came the phrase “Suck my dick!” in heavily accented English. All the boys laughed. This time I was laughing too.
The “hello” problem is typically inversely proportional to how cosmopolitan a particular city is. For example, in Shanghai if you hear a “hello” it’s probably from the white guy going the other direction on the escalator who notices that you two are wearing the same Van Halen T-shirt. Beijing is the same. In the big cities, the novelty of foreigners is stale enough that you can no longer get a rise out of simply yelling “hello” at them.
So how do you deal with this “problem?” One way is to just suck it in and keep walking as if nobody is talking to you. The most humiliating response is to turn around and give the deer in the headlights “Hey, somebody just said ‘hello’ to me.” look. Ignoring somebody who is yelling at you from ten feet away can be demeaning enough in some situations and provide an adequate feeling of retribution. A while ago my girlfriend suggested (and now regrets teaching me) the phrase “gan ma,” which means something along the lines of “What the fuck are you doing?” not in the tone you would get from your parents after leaving the bathwater running until it overflowed, but more so in the sense of the way people would respond if you stood at a street corner in July singing Christmas carols with your underwear on the outside of your pants. Basically, if you walk up to an average Chinese person and yell “ni hao” at them, “gan ma” is what you will get in return. “Gan ma” worked really well because not only did it throw a quick curveball at the heckler (a typical hello-wer isn’t expecting the foreigner to speak any Chinese) but it also turned the joke back around at them. My favorite time to pull this one out was when a Chinese guy, in the company of females, would “hello” me in an attempt to show off…at my expense. Replying with “gan ma” would turn the tables and then he would find himself being laughed at by the girls in his company.
Last May I traveled to Jiangxi and Hunan province with my friend Ron (check out the pics www.benross.net/photos.htm ), and naturally we ran into a lot of hello-ers as we were traveling through small towns. After getting some good mileage out of “gan ma” we came up with an even better solution to the “hello” problem. If one of us heard a “hello” we would immediately turn to the other and with a puzzled look, ask, in Chinese “What language is that guy speaking?” The other one would reply back “I’m not sure, maybe Russian? Pakistani?” This took people completely off balance, with the hecklers either apologizing to us in Chinese, or simply scurrying away, bewildered.
Note: As with most of the “bad behaviors” that Westerners commonly make note of in China, it is only a small percentage of the population who participates in the hello-ing. By in large, most Chinese people would probably find it inappropriate and rude as well.
So after a week of waiting, Sunday night finally came, and it was time for our 8 minute segment on the Fuzhou News. Because we don’t have a TV, we had to go to a neighborhood shop to watch the segment. We weren’t expecting much, but after some decent editing, the segment actually came out pretty nice. There are shots of Mel and I teaching class, an interview with me, and interview with several students. I will put it up online as soon as I get a CD from the News station, and you can see for yourself. So as if this wasn’t enough media exposure already, we got a call the next day from a Fujian provincial magazine who wanted to make me the “Foreigner of the Month” or something like that. They came to our house and did another interview, and I will likely have another cheesy story about me in yet another medium.
The funniest thing about all this is that because of one simple newspaper article, Mel and I have been basically elavated to rockstar status around Fuzhou. Between interviews, media photo shoots, and banquets with new people who saw us in the media and have requested our services, I’m starting to think we need a secretary. So tomorrow, the magazine is coming to our class to do a photo shoot, and then next week we have an appointment to do the voices on a TV show. I have hardly even had time to write any blogs, but I will try to keep everybody posted as this situation becomes increasingly hilarious.
Being a member of a minority in a country where the minority (in this case people who aren’t Chinese), is a fraction of a percentage point of the total population, comes with a few perks. One is a much greater likelihood of being picked up by the local media….not in the creepy Dick Cheney Big Brother kind of way, but more so in the Bob Sagat America’s Funniest Home Videos kind of way. And as one of the several hundred honkies in a town of 6 million Chinese people (yes Ron, I know there are black people in Fuzhou too), I have had my share of exposure. Although after several game show appearances, a news interview about the Spring Festival, a promotional infomercial about underground cable, and an appearance in the “Foreigner of the Month” section of the Fuzhou Evening News, nothing has compared to the current media extravaganza surrounding of all things…an English class
Two months ago, Melody and I began teaching a small neighborhood English class out of our apartment. The class was designed to provide a relaxed environment for neighbors (mostly young professionals) to learn English, and provide Mel and I with a chance to get better acquainted with the community and make a little extra cash on the side. We got our first batch of students through postings Mel made to our neighborhood’s Internet message board. The response was big at first, but we ended up with a modest 6 students who actually showed up for our first month-long ‘semester.’ After the first month was over, it was our plan to have our first 6 students continue on to our “middle level” class and at the same time, find a new crop of students to make up a “beginner level” class. The response was pretty weak, with only 2 students who said they were interested actually showing up.
The situation looked pretty grim until we got a call from the Fuzhou Strait News who wanted to write a story about our class. The article (translation will be up soon) was pretty cheesy and included some rather gross misinformation, but as soon as it was printed, we began receiving random knocks at our door from people who had read the article and wanted to find out information about our class. It wasn’t just in the house. Everywhere I went whether it was eating at a restaurant, buying groceries, or getting my haircut it was “Hey, aren’t you that foreigner with the English class. I saw you in the newspaper.” I really had no idea how many Chinese people read the newspaper until this happened. I even overheard a Chinese friend of mine when talking to me on the phone refer to me as “that foreigner in the newspaper.”
After all the exposure, Mel and I were quite satisfied. After all, we were able to fill up our new class with 8 students, and add 2 more to the “middle level” class. The hype was beginning to die down until yesterday we got a call from the Fuzhou TV station. They told us they had seen the article in the newspaper and wanted to do a short interview with us about our class. We told them they could show up before class on Thursday, interview us, and listen in on class. Mel and I were a little surprised to have received so much hype over a simple English class, but we had no idea what we were in for.
The two journalists showed up at 7 (class begins at 7:30) with full camera and microphone equipment. They asked us some basic information about class, and told us they wanted to film the whole process (students coming in the door, us greeting them in English, teaching the class, etc.) Presumably because of the rain, we only had 3 students show up to class, so it quickly digressed into a rapid fire interviewing session with us and our students. It was also at this point that the journalists told us that they weren’t doing just a short clip about our class. It was to be a 5 to 8 minute segment about Me and Mel and our life, as if we were some kind of superstars. They asked us all kinds of personal questions about our relationship, how we met, how often we fight, and what kind of cultural obstacles we face. After the students left, they filmed us as we cleaned up our house and re-created our pre-lesson preparation so that 6 million people could get a glimpse into our “everyday life.” Then we took Zhao Zhao for a walk, and the obligatory number 2, which was also caught carefully caught on camera. The journalists then followed us to the nearest store where we bought orange juice and rice cakes. As if this wasn’t enough to capture the sheer thrill and excitement of our lives, they told us that they want to meet us again tomorrow downtown to film us walking around shopping.
Throughout the whole night, Mel and I kept looking at each other in humorous disbelief in regards to the extent at which they were covering our lives like we were some sort of celebrities. I don’t think Arnold Schwarzenegger got this much coverage the last time he was in China. And if this wasn’t enough, I’m scheduled this weekend to do another interview with a magazine who wants to do a 6 page spread. This is all pretty overwhelming, ridiculous, and humorous, but I’m willing to ride the wave as long as I can get a few good laughs and stories to tell. More updates to come as the situation unfolds.
Today I did something I should have done several months ago. I bought a bike. This is actually the third bike I have bought in China. The first one I bought my first week in China when I was living in Fuqing for 500 RMB (about $60 US). With ten speeds, a basket, breaks that worked, and no rust, it was the radest and badest bicycle on campus. Fuqing was small enough that I with my spiffy little bike I could get almost anywhere in 20 minutes or less. Other than the chain’s tendency to fall off at random times, my first bike served me as well as any other means of transportation I have ever owned. When I moved to Fuzhou in Summer ’05, I took my bike with me for the one hour bus ride from Fuqing. I had to buy a ticket for my bike too. I got off at the Fuzhou South Bus Station and then road halfway across the city (which still only took about an hour) to the Agricultural University where I had just started working. Ironically, this first ride in Fuzhou was to be the last ride for me on my faithful transportation companion I had now owned for over a year. Two days later when I came out of my apartment to go for a ride, the bike was not there.
While living in Fuqing I had been warned several times about bike thieves, but the best I could do was to do as other Chinese did, which was to buy an iron lock and lock it around the frame and wheels of the bike. In theory, the bike could still be stolen, but the thief would have no way to get the lock off the frame, thus rendering the bike useless. Interestingly enough, there are no bike racks to lock your bike onto in China. In Fuzhou I had done just as I had done in Fuqing, and before I could even ride it once, my bike had been lifted.
A week later I purchased bike number 2. This one a blue ten speed which cost me only 200 RMB (about $25 US). It didn’t have as many bells and whistles as the first one, but still had a cool basket in back. A friend had told me that my other bike had probably been stolen because it was too fancy, and a cheaper bike would probably not be as appealing. (This theory was disproved a week later when my friend Todd’s second hand 50 RMB bike with no pedals was stolen). Bike number 2 served me as well, but unlike the first one, I walked it up 4 flights of stairs and parked it inside my apartment every time I rode it, rather than leaving it outside.
Later that semester, my colleague/neighbor/friend Wily also had his bike stolen from below our apartment complex. After this happened, we complained to the school, and they agreed to build us a little cage below our apartments to lock our bikes in at night. This seemed like a decent solution to the problem, and I began leaving my bike downstairs again, albeit still with the iron lock inside the locked cage. My other colleague/neighbor/friend Eric had also recently purchased a 3000 RMB ($350 USD) electric bike, and wasn’t so trusting of the “cage.” Fearing another thievery he routinely locked his bike inside the cage with 5 locks on it. We all thought he was crazy and told him he was a little too paranoid, until one day he showed up at my door with a half apologetic half jokingly “I told you so” manor and told me the lock on the cage had broken and my bike had been stolen. His was still in the cage, the thieves having only broken 2 of the 5 locks. Although I was obviously pissed my bike had stolen, I was a little amused at the lengths the thieves had gone to steal it.
I was planning on buying a new bike until another day when Eric knocked on my door again, this time he was obviously quite angered. His elaborate 5 lock scheme had finally succumbed to the skill of the Fuzhou bike stealing mafia. It was at this point I gave up and just decided to walk.
As much as I enjoy riding a bike, this wasn’t so terrible as the campus of the Agricultural University was outside of the city proper, so the only bike riding I really did was in campus, mainly going to and from class, shortening my commute from a 20 minute walk to a 7 minute bike ride. I have now been living inside Fuzhou proper for 2 months and today it finally hit me. “You live in China. The weather is nice. Traffic sucks. Why the fuck don’t you buy a bicycle?” So today I went out and picked out bicycle number 3. This one is the Oscar brand, which according to the guy I bought it from is the “best quality brand in China.” I tried to tell him that the bike will probably get stolen before it even has the chance to break, so I wasn’t too concerned about quality,” but this didn’t change his mind. “The Oscar is most suitable for you.” So Oscar it was, and so far (this includes the ride from the bike store home) I am quite satisfied. The kicker will be to see if it actually will still be there next time I want to ride it. I’ll keep you all posted.
As a lot of you probably know, I’ve been living in China for two and a half years now. During that time, I’ve been sending out periodic e-mail updates. The updates were a lot of fun to write, but being the anal perfectionist that I am, I often found myself writing up an e-mail, editing, adding, editing, adding, and editing again to the point I was missing a lot of good stuff because I was still working on an e-mail from a month before. Because of this, I found that a lot of interesting and some not-so-interesting things which happened in China such as my trip to Mongolia, my first (and only) time eating dog, multiple game show appearances, and my feud with the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China never got blogged, or in this case e-mailed. So hopefully, this blog will give me (and you) a forum to write up my thoughts and daily excursions all placed in a convenient spot. Enjoy, and send me any comments you have.