Disclaimer: Throughout my life, I’ve always tried to take stereotypes and prejudices for what they are—generalizations. Although many stereotypes are in fact accurate, for any generalization there are always one thousand exceptions who break the rule. Whether it’s the tall Japanese guy, the athletic Jew, the black guy who listens to the Dave Matthews band or my friend Micah who is 6 feet tall, red-headed, Jewish, from Iowa, and speaks fluent Chinese, there are always those people who don’t fit the pre-conceptualized mold. One generalization about China however, and this is echoing the consensus of most foreigners I have come into contact with both men and women, is that Chinese women are liked a lot more than Chinese men. Is it so coincidental how frequently you see the foreign guy/Chinese girl couple, but so rarely you see the Chinese guy/foreign girl couple? What is it that attracts foreign guys to Chinese girls so much? And why is there so little love for Chinese men? This topic could easily spur countless blog entries, but today I want to focus on one particular trait I have found about Chinese men which I find particularly perturbing. That is, they are know-it-alls.
I personally have no problem (and am probably guilty myself) of people who like to flaunt their knowledge, that is when they know what they are talking about. The problem with Chinese men is that whenever a conversation comes to politics, culture, or anything remotely cerebral, they feel the need to exert some form of intellectual superiority over the others, especially if there are women (who are presumably intellectually inferior) around, and even more so if a foreigner is around.
As a self-professed China history/culture nerd, dinner table conversations I am at often turn to China-related topics, as I probe people for information about their hometowns, local culture, language, food, etc. When these topics come up, undoubtedly there is one alpha male at the table who will answer my question (as well as several questions I didn’t ask) as if he is giving a lecture. When I first arrived in China, I took in all the information I could get, since it was, so to speak, straight from the dragon’s mouth. More and more, however, I began to realize that what was coming out of people’s mouths was no more fact than it was a mere attempt to reaffirm their knowledge of the homeland to the others, who in turn were either less knowledgeable than the speaker or were merely kind enough to prevent him from losing face by contradicting his bovine scatology.
This happened the other night when I was out to dinner with a former colleague’s family. My colleague’s uncle had lived in Beijing for many years and had returned to Fuzhou for the Spring Festival. He was explaining to me how people in Beijing speak much more standard Mandarin than people in Fuzhou (this is true). I told him I agreed, but that I often had trouble understanding the cab drivers in Beijing when they spoke. This is because although most educated people in Beijing speak virtually perfect CCTV Mandarin, the lower educated stratum speak what is known as Beijing hua, which might be equivalent to a strong New Jersey accent spoken by a first generation American. What projects from their mouths sounds like Mandarin, but spoken as if the speaker is holding water in his mouth as he speaks. The result is that arbitrary “R” sounds get added to most words, even if they aren’t supposed to be there. To any native Chinese speaker, understanding Beijing hua is no problem (this is completely different from Fuzhou hua, which is only understood by people whose hometowns are less than 2 hours away from Fuzhou), but for a foreigner, especially one who learned Chinese in the South, it can be quite taxing.
I was explaining my difficulties understanding Beijing cab drivers (who generally have low education levels) to my colleague’s uncle, and his explanation was that Beijing cab drivers were actually not Beijing natives. Rather, they were migrant workers from nearby provinces such as Hebei and Henan, and thus their Mandarin was less standard. This explanation would have made a lot of sense, had it not been for the fact that last year I spent six weeks in Beijing conducting research on migrant workers. Every time I rode a cab, I asked the driver where he was from. Every single time (I road cabs at least twice a day), the driver was from Beijing. I had even asked several drivers why unlike other cities in China, nearly all the cabbies in Beijing were actually from Beijing. Several drivers had told that there was a regulation in Beijing, whereby all cab drivers within Beijing city limits must be residents of Beijing. Therefore, it was impossible for anybody from another city to drive a cab in Beijing.
Clearly, I had been bullshitted directly to my face, by somebody who did not know what they were talking about, and had assumed, by default, the white guy didn’t either. The most difficult part of this is that because I am a foreigner, and I am of the lower generation, and I am a guest, rebutting any of this “information” would have caused loss of face and embarrassment to the other party. Thus, I would have been the asshole. When this happens you are forced to sit, listen, nod your head, and pretend you are completely ignorant, as somebody else, who in all likelihood is more ignorant than you, ejaculates their “knowledge” all over the dinner table.
Do these women really look Jewish?
The most ridiculous case of Chinese macho know-it-all-ness came two summers ago when I was having dinner at Melody’s uncle’s house. I had just returned from a trip to Xinjiang , a vast region in Northwest China which is home to the Uighurs, a Turkic minority group, distant from the Han Chinese in both physical appearance and culture.
Upon hearing of my trip out West, and knowing full-well that I was Jewish, Melody’s uncle began a historical diatribe which began like this.
“Ben, did you know that the Jews have a long history in China?”
“Yeah, when I was in Shanghai, I visited the old synagogues there,” I replied. The Shanghai Jewish community of World War II is the best known of several historical Jewish communities in China. Displaying your own knowledge by answering questions is okay in this situation, so long as you don’t contradict the alpha male, and you give him some room to one-up your insight.
“That is not what I was referring to,” he replied. “The area you just visited also has rich Chinese Jewish History.”
“How so?” This was uncharted territory for me, and if there were in fact Jews in Xinjiang, I had been completely ignorant of it. I was skeptical, but willing to listen.
“You see, the Uighurs in Xinjiang were a group of Jews who many years ago traveled across the desert and made their home in China, where they still practice Judaism today.”
I sat in awe for a moment. Maybe it’s just me, but the fact that while in Xinjiang I visited several different mosques where the holy books were written in Arabic, and the women wore birkas, and they called their god Allah, and they greeted me with A’ salaam aleikum, had me thinking that maybe…just maybe these guys weren’t Jewish. This of course not mentioning the various books and internet resources I had consulted in both English and Chinese which clearly identified the Uighurs as devout followers of ISLAM!
I was offended. It’s one thing to be bullshitted to my face about matters purely pertaining to Chinese history, but to be bullshitted on a matter concerning my own people, especially in a situation where rebuttal was not an option, left me frustrated and angry.
Sensing her uncle’s ignorance and knowing what my natural response would be, Melody tapped me on the leg, and told me to just smile, and act interested. Any other response could threaten her uncle’s claim to intellectual superiority at his dinner table and would be an construed as an unwelcome assault on our host.
This kind of situation is especially frustrating when you have been devoting your time and energy to actively studying the history and culture of China, and you have to listen to somebody else’s ignorant assumptions, and nod in agreement as they lecture you, simply because they are Chinese and/or part of the older generation. The feeling is as if because you are a foreigner you simply cannot understand concepts even as surface as what language people are speaking, or what religion they practice. I should add that this “know-it-all gene” only seems to profess itself only after the particular subject has pro-created. Like most other traits which bother me about Chinese men, this one is virtually non-existent with men who have yet to marry and have children.
Why are Chinese men so eager to assert their intellectual dominance? Why do they continue to spew information even if it is completely inaccurate? And why do they think foreigners are so ignorant that the bullshit will fly right over their heads, not to mention those of the other Chinese people at the table? The floor is open to suggestions. Further disclaimer: I want to reaffirm that not all Chinese men are as such. I write this article however, to bring attention to a trait that I often notice among Chinese married men, but rarely among Chinese women, young men, or westerners.
This is the beginning of a multi-part series of my trip to Mongolia, which happened almost 5 months ago, but for various reasons I never got around to documenting online. You can also see the first of three Mongolia photo albums on benross.net. More will come in the following days.
Back in September when I was working on the migrant worker research project I had a little visa predicament. Because of a silly regulation, my visa at the time was valid for 6 months, but only allowed me to stay in China 30 days at a time. Usually, this means a quick trip to Hong Kong, since for visa purposes Hong Kong is still considered outside of China. This was quite convenient when I was in Guangzhou for our first research site, as Hong Kong was only a 2 hour train ride away. However, our second research site was Beijing, so (un)fortunately going to Hong Kong for a day was more of a stretch. We had about a week between our research in Beijing, and the next site, which was Shanghai, and I figured since I had to leave the country anyway, instead of hopping over to Hong Kong again, why not just take the week off and pay a quick visit to neighboring Mongolia?
Chinggis Khaan International Airport, Ulaanbaatar
For point of clarification, there are actually 2 Mongolias: Inner Mongolia and Outer Mongolia. Inner Mongolia is part of China and consists of a long strip of land running the length of most of China’s northern borders. Outer Mongolia (usually simply referred to as Mongolia) is an independent country sandwiched between Russia and China. Today there are more ethnic Mongolians living in Inner Mongolia (China) than Mongolia itself, however, they are heavily Sinocized and culturally distant from their brothers and sisters across the border.
Mongolia is one of the world’s least-developed, least-populated, and least-polluted countries in the world. With a population of only 2.4 million, about half of which living in the capital Ulaanbaatar, the entire country’s entire population is just more than a third of the population of Fuzhou, a medium-sized city by Chinese standards. Outside of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s largest “cities” only number in the tens of thousands, with a significant portion of its population still living the traditional Mongolian life as nomadic sheep herders.
The best way to experience Mongolia is to rent a jeep from Ulaanbaatar and take a two week trip out to the remote Western regions. For me, I only had 6 days, so my route was much simpler. I bought a plane ticket from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, with the plan of taking ground transportation back to Beijing.
The Moscow-Beijing train route transverses Mongolia from north to south (this one route comprises 90% of Mongolia’s rail grid), and most travelers take the direct international train from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. My plan was rather than take the international train, to take Mongolian transportation from UB to the Chinese border, stopping along the way in small towns if possible, and then crossing the border overland. From the border I would take Chinese transportation back to Beijing. This also turned out to be much, much cheaper as well, as my train tickets from Ulaanbaatar to the border only cost me about $11 USD. My bus ride from the Chinese border to Beijing was about $25. For comparison sake, my one-way plane ticket from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar had cost $250 and the international train would have cost $100.
I flew from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar on an Air China flight which felt like a U.N. delegation. There were people of all races, and colors. The funny thing was few of them looked Chinese or Mongolian. Flying across the Gobi Desert reaffirmed what I had already learned from Google Earth which was that Beijing is on the edge of Chinese civilization, and north of the Great Wall all the way to Ulaanbaatar is nothing but sand. I could not see a single sign of civilization until we began our descent on Ulaanbaatar. Looking down from the plane I could see tiny white circles, which were the gehrs (tents) that had been the staple dwellings of Mongolians for centuries. There were no buildings until we landed in Ulaanbaatar.
Landing at Chinggis Khan Airport in Ulaanbaatar gives you your first taste of how underdeveloped Mongolia really is. I have seen McDonald’s in China where were bigger than this airport, which is by far Mongolia’s largest. As our plane taxied to the gate, looking out the window I saw a fleet of small Mongolian Airlines planes which looked like they were left over from World War II. Because the Mongolian population is so sparsely populated, air travel is the only way to reach many far-off domestic locations. However, big jets are only used for international routs which in addition to Beijing, also go to Tokyo, Osaka, Seoul, Moscow, Irkutsk (Russia), Berlin, and Hohhot (Inner Mongolia).
Once I got to the Ulaanbaatar airport, I had what was easily the most seamless customs experience of my life. Because only several flights come in to Ulaanbaatar every day, there were only the 50 or so people from our flight going through customs. As an American, you don’t even need a visa to enter Mongolia. You simply show them your passport, and voila, you’re in.
On the plane I had met a former Wall Street guy named Kevin who had quit his job and was now traveling the world. We found a cab, and headed into town bound for a Youth Hostel which had been recommended by the thoroughly cliché, but useful Lonely Planet.
Ulaanbaatar (or “UB” as people in the know seem to refer to it) is relatively cosmopolitan and tourist friendly. It is also the starting point for virtually every Mongolian travel expedition. There are youth hostels all over the city, with helpful staff, many of whom speak English, and can organize trips all over the country. The hostel we stayed at was run by a Korean man named “David” and his Mongolian wife who towered over him by at least a foot.
the “suburbs” of Ulaanbaatar
As soon as we got situated at the hostel, Kevin and I hit the road, on foot, to explore the town. After living in China 2 years, I viewed everything in Mongolia through the lens of my experiences in China. What became immediately apparent is that Mongolia and China have virtually nothing in common (more on this in later posts). As we walked further from the city, the Soviet era styled buildings got smaller and smaller. After wandering over an hour, we reached the outskirts of the city which were nothing more than tent villages scattered out forming vast suburbs between the city and the ensuing desert.
After our little “hike” to the suburbs, it was time for our first bona fide Mongolian meal. Because of Mongolia’s harsh climate, farming is difficult. Many of the Mongolian nomads outside of the cities, subsist the entire winter on a diet which consists entirely of boiled mutton and…mutton. Though the situation is not as bleak in UB, which has access to a small variety of farmed vegetables, plus several imported goods, food variety is still limited. During a trip I took to the local market, the only vegetables I could find were carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, beats, cabbage, and pickles. The meat was mainly mutton, but there was quite a variety of sausage and other processed products, this is of course, due to Mongolia’s harsh winters and the need for storing food.
Regardless of these limitations, the food in UB was excellent. It was so good that my mouth is now watering as I write this and try to think back about the handful of meals I ate during my stay. With the help of my Mongolian phrasebook, and several pictures on the wall, Kevin and I ordered our meals. My dish, which was called “AY3” in Mongolian script and pronounced something like “azo” resembled a skillet. It was cooked on a fajita plate and consisted of fried potatoes, tomatoes, onions, peppers and pieces of sausage. Kevin ordered sausages, which came with rice, pickled vegetables, and potato wedges on the side. As you can see from the picture, Mongolians eat with forks and knives, rather than chopsticks as is done in most other Asian countries. It is likely however, (just my guess) that this was because of the immense Russian influence on Mongolia during the 20th century.
After our meal, Kevin and I headed back to the hostel. There was still much more to see in UB, but after our flight and hike, it was time to relax and let the AY3 digest.
Note: Unfortunately, I still have not gotten around to continuing this series about the Mongolia trip even though it was a year ago. So if you’re looking for Midwesterner in Mongolia (part 2) and can’t find it, that’s why. Hopefully in the not to distant future I will get this updated.
In less than 24 hours, Fuzhou will transform into a veritable war zone as an arsenal of firecrackers explodes on every street, hallway, and inch of space in town, signaling the final moments of the year of the dog (last year it was the end of the year of the cock) and welcoming in the year of the pig. This is the beginning of what was probably, before the international whoring of Christmas, humanity’s most widely observed celebration, the Chinese Spring Festival. The best analogy I can provide for Spring Festival is that it is like New Years, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July all wrapped into a 15 day-celebration. During Spring Festival it is tradition for Chinese people to return to their hometowns, eat a glutinous New Year’s feast with their families, light a lot of fireworks, and watch the CCTV Spring Festival Gala, China’s own version of the Super Bowl, except there is no football, and the commercials suck.
|Leftover Spring Festival carnage in a stairwell in Fujian.
Spring Festival for me also marks the traumatic finale of a massive season of Chinese, Western, American, Jewish, and Christian holidays, all of which generally necessitate some form of multi-cultural party or get-together when you are a foreigner living in China. The festivities began with Thanksgiving, then my birthday (Dec. 18), Christmas, Hanukkah, New Years, Valentine’s Day and now Spring Festival, not to mention my friends’ Clarence and Mandy’s engagement celebrations. All of this partying and celebrating got me thinking…Not all holidays are created equal. When I broke down all of the holidays and festivals which I encounter on a yearly basis, I come up with a fair collection of winners and duds. Here they are, My Non-Denominational List of Top Ten Holidays and Festivals.
10. Mid-Autumn Day
Mid-Autumn Day is the Chinese equivalent of a diluted Thanksgiving, except there are no Pilgrims, no Indians, and no blankets intentionally infected with small pox. But it’s the multi-flavored moon cakes which propel Mid-Autumn Day onto the list.
9. July 4th
Just as the Spring Festival is better observed in China’s countryside, there is nothing like July 4th and a place with a lot of country folk, such as…say…Missouri. Never mind that today our country’s values put world security in jeopardy, Independence Day is still all about the beer, the fireworks, and the ol’ stars and stripes.
8. Wacking Day
Okay, so maybe it was only invented on The Simpsons, but is there anything negative to say about a day where mob mentality rules and angry crowds prowl the streets with sticks beating the life out of the city’s snake population?
7. Yom Kippur
You might find it strange I have included such a solemn day on my list of Top Holidays and Festivals, but there are few concepts more cross-culturally applicable than dedicating one day a year to fasting, and repenting for all of the sins you committed throughout the year. This concept transcends religious beliefs, and it is the only Jewish holiday I regularly observe in China.
6. Your 21st birthday (applies for Americans only)
This isn’t technically a holiday or festival, but Americans love to abuse alcohol, and there is never a better reason to celebrate than the day where you can actually drink for the first time, legally? My 21st birthday was on a Monday night, and to this day I have yet to level that night’s levels of intoxication. Non-Americans simply don’t know the feeling.
5. New Year’s Eve (Western)
The Chinese New Year may be more multi-dimensional, but there is no bigger party than New Years Eve in the West.
Family, food, and football, nothing is more wholesome and American, and that’s why the final Thursday in November has always been on my list. A bantering John Madden with a turkey leg in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other doesn’t hurt either.
3. Spring Festival/Chinese New Year
You’ve heard the stereotypes, and they’re right on the money. Chinese food is great, and fireworks are plentiful in the land of chopsticks. What could be better than wrapping it all together under the backdrop of a family reunion? Spring Festival’s a keeper.
When Chinese people ask me about my favorite “American” holidays Halloween is always the first to come to mind. Whether it’s going out trick-or-treating, having a drunken costume party, or just staying home with the Frankenstein and Osama bin Laden masks, handing out candy to children, Halloween is a pagan festival that people of all ages can enjoy.
It might sound cliché, but to me, the granddaddy of them all is the one that occurs 52 times a year. Shabbat is the Jewish day of rest, but not just rest in the physical sense. Shabbat is the day to clear the mind of all the pressures which otherwise cloud it 6 days a week. It’s a day to leave work and technology behind, and instead focus on what makes us human, our communities, our thoughts, and depending on your beliefs, the man upstairs.
St. Patrick’s Day. Is there any group of people other than the Irish which throws a better party in honor of their own nationalism and pride? If Jews did that, the whole day would consist of eating kougal and fixing up the younger generation on blind dates.
Not all holidays made the Top 10, and frankly some celebrations are simply overrated in my book, so now we have the Top 5 List of Most Overrated Holidays and Festivals.
5. Columbus Day
Christopher Columbus was a raider and a tyrant, who in the process of spreading syphilis and raping Indian women, managed to discover a land which had already been discovered 500 years before. Celebrating Columbus Day in America is like celebrating Dick Cheney Day in Baghdad.
4. Labor Day/National Day (China)
Several years ago the Chinese government decided to give the people two “golden weeks” per year in order to encourage traveling and spending. The result is that most of China’s tourism is occurs during these two weeks, making any worthwhile tourist attraction, pathetically unattractive during this time period. What’s worse, people have to go to work on the weekend before the holiday, so each “golden week” in reality nets only 3 days off.
3. Labor Day/Memorial Day (US)
Can anybody seriously tell me the last time you did something to honor either labor or fallen soldiers which didn’t involve jet skiing or golf. These “holidays” should both be renamed “National Get the Day off Work and Go Vacationing in the Ozarks/Hamptons/Mountains Day.”
Christmas ain’t all that great, and Hanukkah is Christmas’s little bastard Jewish cousin. What was originally a holiday no more significant that President’s Day, has now, under the influence of Christmas, become one of the most over-hyped Jewish festivals on the calendar. I’ll take Pesach over Hanukkah any day.
As a Jew, I’m a little biased, but I’ve never been a big fan of Christmas. What was originally the celebration of the birth of a man who healed the sick and died for the sins of his followers, has evolved into a frenzy of materialism and overspending. Americans now spend more money each year on Christmas than the entire GDP of Namibia. (sources available upon request)
Well, it’s been about a month since I officially started this blog, and I’m still trying to get the hang of all the wordpress features. Eventually, I also want to better integrate this blog into benross.net which hosts all my pictures and other fun stuff. I looked around today to start posting my blog on some China blog lists, but one thing I realized is that before I really can start whoring this blog out to the masses, it needs a name slightly more creative than “Ben’s blog.” The Chinese characters, at the top, also mean “Ben’s blog” in Chinese. If anybody has any good ideas, please post them here. Thanks,
Today I went to the market and bought an onion. The seller wrapped it in a plastic bag. It was the only thing I bought, and I wasn’t really sure what kind of difficulty carrying an onion possesed, which would require me to seek the assistance of a plastic bag. The Chinese have a peculiar fixation with plastic bags. Every item, no matter how small or easily carried is wrapped in the obligatory plastic. It’s almost as if anything purchased in China must not leave the store without being first wrapped in plastic.
Don’t get me wrong, plastic bags are an incredible invention and certainly have their place in society. Try living a week without using a plastic bag, and see how far you get. The strange thing in China is that their use is almost more compulsory rather than functional, as if you don’t get your item wrapped in plastic, you are somehow being ripped off. I’m not talking about going to the grocery store, buying a week’s worth of groceries and having them wrapped up. What I am talking about is walking into a store empty handed, buying a single item, such as toothpaste, a bottle of water, or beef jerky and having it wrapped in a bag. The other day, I even went to the store to buy a pack of trash bags, and those were wrapped in a bag. Even items which already come in a bag such as bread and laundry detergent are wrapped in another plastic bag when you buy them.
To me this all seems a little ridiculous and wasteful. I am no major environmental activist, but this got me thinking…Imagine the ecological effect if everybody in China (there are 1.3 billion people officially) used one less bag per day. That’s 1.3 billion bags per day which don’t end up in the incinerator and floating around the atmosphere, (which is what happens to most trash in China). Actually, I began thinking about this over a year ago, and since then whenever I buy less than 3 things, I ask for no bag, and my savings have easily eclipsed one bag per day. The shop attendants look at me funny when I tell them I don’t need a bag, as if I’m telling them I don’t need my change back or something. Then I simply politely tell them that it’s wasteful to wrap a single item in a bag, and that it’s just as easy to carry it in your hands. Usually they agree, but still continue their policy of wrapping single items in bags.
continued 3/24/07 in Paper or Plastic? (update)
After several months of constant, agonizing, semi-daily shaving, I’ve decided to regrow my beard. One of the interesting physiological differences between the Chinese and white folk is the Chinese’ dearth of body hair. Most Chinese girls do not even shave their legs, and most Chinese men have little more than a bit of peach fuzz on their faces. Now as any bearded guy (especially those with long hair) knows, back in the US a long, full beard can often become a conversation centerpiece. Of all the great facial hair in American history from Mark Twain to Abraham Lincoln, to Rollie Fingers, the historical figure who most often gets evoked in beard comparisons is none other than Jesus of Nazareth.
However, in a China where the masses have not grown up under the influence of the man who could heal the sick and walk on water, there is another figure who sets the standards for facial hair comparisons. I realized this first on my first Chinese train ride in the summer of 2004 from Xi’an to Chengdu, where when passing numerous passengers I was eagerly greeted with the words “Bean-la-den…BEAN-LA-DEN.” This of course was referring to the man whom President Bush (under the guise of Will Farrell) referred to as his “own personal Where’s Waldo.” That of course would be Osama bin Laden. And the comparisons didn’t stop. As long as I refrained from shaving, I was constantly reminded of my uncanny similarities to the mysterious bearded man who’s face graces our nations wanted posters and urinal cakes.
I did find it interesting, that as an American, people chose to compare me (albeit merely a physical comparison) to probably the most hated man in America for the past 5 years. Afterall, if you knew a Jewish guy with a square moustache and a German accent, would you tell him how much he looked like Hitler, even if he really did look like the Furor? So anyway, go ahead and have a look. I’ll let you be the judge.
After a really lax 2006, I have decided to make it my New Years resolution to do a better job of keeping benross.net updated. The first thing is to upload all the pics from 2006 which include my trip to Hunan & Jiangxi, my trip back to the US, my work in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai, and my trip to Mongolia. I will be putting a lot of new galleries up in the next few weeks, so stop by benross.net to check them out. The first gallery I put up is from a trip I took with Ron over the May Day holiday where we went to neighboring Jiangxi and Hunan province. We visited 6 different cities in 6 days, and accomplished all this by doing most of our traveling at night as we slept on buses or trains. Our final destination was Shaoshan, the home of Mao Zedong. You can view the pics at www.benross.net/photos.htm More to come, enjoy.