ni hao ma?

Posted in Culture Clash, Linguistics at 11:46 pm by Benjamin Ross

If you’re a foreigner who has studied Chinese, most likely during your first Chinese lesson you learned the phrase ni hao ma. Ni hao ma is probably the most accurate literal translation for “how are you?” however there is one problem. Chinese people never say this to each other. The only time I have heard it used among Chinese people is when translating “How are you?” into Chinese. This begs the obvious question. If Chinese people never say ni hao ma, why is it on the first page of nearly every Chinese textbook in existence? The problem lies in the fact that often it is impossible to literally translate greetings. When you are asking somebody “how are you?” you are not concerned with their answer. Instead you are acknowledging their presence, and allowing them the opportunity to reaffirm yours. Chinese works the same way, except their common greetings are a little more colorful than ours in English. If I were writing my own Chinese book, I would use the following 3 phrases as equivalents of “how are you?”

你吃了吗? ni3 chi1 le ma Have you eaten yet?
去哪里啊? qu4 na3 li3 a1 Where are you going?
在干吗啊? zai4 gan4 ma a1 What are you doing?

Westerners sometimes feel uncomfortable when Chinese people ask them these questions, especially if it is in English. This can also cause some cultural misunderstanding. Here’s an example of a conversation I had with my friend Jin Long on my third day in China.

(phone rings at 8 am)

Ben: Hello.

Jin Long: Hello Ben, have you had your breakfast?

Ben (excited): No not yet, wanna get breakfast together?

Jin Long: Of course not.

Ben (surprised): Why not?

Jin Long: I have already eaten my breakfast.

Ben (confused): …Oh, I see.

In fact, nobody really cares whether or not you have eaten lunch. It’s just their way of saying “How are you?” or as we might say ni hao ma.



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Posted in Curious English at 12:47 pm by Benjamin Ross

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For the record, I am against spam in all forms. I classify it with junk mail, telemarketing and syphillis, as things I could unequivocally say the world would be much better off without. In my life, I have received a lot of spam–usually in English, sometimes in Chinese, occasionally in Polish. This message, however, was the first authentic Chinglish spam I have ever received, and it came in the form of a comment to my blog. I know we all like to laugh at Chinglish sometimes, even though we ususally can figure out what it means. This message, however, has me completely stumped. Anybody care to translate?



Paper or Plastic? (Update)

Posted in Culture Clash, Food and Drink, Local Customs, Society at 7:41 pm by Benjamin Ross

Continued from Paper or Plastic?

Last night I was at a store which sells specialty products from Western Fujian. I was picking up a single pack of pig gall bladder jerky (not for my own consumption I might add), and after I had paid, the shop owner asked me “Do you want a bag?” I was overjoyed to find that I am not the only person in China who thinks that wrapping a single item which is already wrapped in plastic, inside an additional layer of plastic is not absolutely necessary all the time.

Unfortunately, when he asked me if I wanted a bag or not, I replied “yes,” possibly out of the shock of being asked, or possibly out of the fear bystanders would know I was holding pig gall bladder jerky on my person. This of course is nothing to be embarrassed about in China, but hey, I’m a Westerner, and sometimes I just can’t help it.

pork jerky mouse jerky Chinese snacks
Western Fujian has eight famous varieties of jerky including pork jerky, mouse jerky, and bamboo jerky. This is the pork gall bladder variety. They are all quite tasty.



Cross Cultural Contamination

Posted in Culture Clash, Food and Drink, Health and Medicine at 9:57 pm by Benjamin Ross

chinese meat market
a typical Chinese “meat market” in Fuqing, Fujian

As Westerners, one of our first impressions of the China is an apparent lack of sanitation, especially in regards to food. In Chinese markets, one can find meat remaining out on tables all day long, unwrapped and unrefrigerated. Vegetables are sprawled over the dirty ground, often only a few feet away from heaps of rotting garbage. Flies and other pests are abundant. Chinese restaurants can be even worse. Like the market, the floors are dirty, the food is not always refrigerated, cooking utensils are often old and rusty, and cooks slice their vegetables on the same surface as raw meat without washing in between. Based on Western standards, China’s restaurants and markets fall far below our expectations of cleanliness in the West. (note: Many high-end Chinese restaurants follow Western sanitation standards. This article is concerned with the mid-range and cheaper places, which are more common.)

I believe there are 3 main reasons for this.

1. China is a developing country, and amenities such as refrigeration are still relatively new. Although they are available to most of the population, it still requires time for these devices to be completely integrated into the culture. A refrigerator in China is still an amenity, not a necessity as it is in the West. The same could be said for individual packaging of meats and vegetables, which is available in most high-end grocery stores, but still not the norm for Chinese families buying groceries.

2. Americans* are over-paranoid about food sanitation. Our mysophobic society spends too much time and effort ensuring all our food products are clean, sealed, fresh, air-tight, unpolluted, untainted, uncontaminated, dirt free, sanitary, hygienic, sterile, disinfected, anti-bacterial, and vacuum-packed. Yes, germs are the culprits of most infectious diseases, but when did we forget that each of our bodies come equipped with its own personal immune system. While I am not saying food sanitation is not important, I do think it is a little overkill in the US.
*I could have probably said “Westerners” but I have not spent enough time in other Western countries to accurately judge.

3. This is the point I want to focus on. Traditional Chinese cooking methods, are by nature, more sanitary than those of the West. Because Chinese society survived for nearly 5,000 years without “modern” sanitation technology, the food culture developed with built-in sanitary checks.

Let’s look at some examples.

1. The Chinese rarely touch their food with their hands. As much as we fret about sneezing, spitting, and passing our bodily fluids, there is quite possibly no spot of the body which spreads as many germs as the hands. Yet, a good proportion of Western cuisine is “finger food.” In China this is rare. Even snacks such as peanuts are eaten with chop sticks. If you order fried chicken at a Chinese fast food restaurant, you will likely be given plastic gloves to assist you with your consumption. Why? Less chance of food touching the hands means less chance germs will enter through the mouth. I am not suggesting that the ancient Chinese possessed the knowledge of germ theory. However, it does not take a microscope to figure out that touching food with grimy hands can lead to sickness.

baby bok choy
Vegetables, such as this homemade baby bok choy, are always served cooked in China.

2. In China, vegetables come cooked. Outside of the context of Western cuisine, most Chinese people would not even think of eating uncooked vegetables. Whether they are stir-fried or dipped in boiling water, Chinese vegetables are served cooked, 99% of the time. Often times, food-born illness such as E. Coli are ingested from contaminated fresh vegetables. With cooked veggies this is a non-issue. This also nullifies the danger of cutting vegetables on the same surface as raw meat.

3. The Chinese tendency towards eating meat in morsels. In the West, we like our meat in large pieces. Cutting it up ourselves is part of the dining experience. In China, this task is relegated to the cook. Meat is diced up into small pieces before it hits the wok. With small morsels it is easier to ensure that the meat is thoroughly cooked. In the West, we prefer cooking large pieces of meat before they are cut up. This method increases the likelihood that part of the meat will not be fully cooked.

4. Everything goes on the fire. Chinese kitchens may be dirty, but there isn’t an item in that kitchen which won’t be exposed to extreme heat before it makes its way onto your plate. 2 million years of human civilization has proven that there is no better germ-killer than good old-fashioned fire. Virtually every item ordered in a traditional Chinese restaurant will arrive at your table straight from a fiery wok. Unlike when cooking with an oven, the operator of a wok constantly flips and turns the contents to ensure all ingredients are properly exposed to heat. With only a few small exceptions, everything in China is served hot (read: sterilized). Heck, the Chinese even boil their water before drinking it.

Interestingly enough, in nearly three years in China, I have only gotten sick off of food once; this as opposed to my average of at least once or twice a year when I was living in the US. At first glance, it would seem logical that living in an environment where food sanitation regulations are lax or non-existent would lead to an increase in food-related stomach ailments. However, three years of subsisting off a diet consisting primarily of cheap Chinese restaurant food has shown this not to be the case.

For the record, I am no doctor, nor do I have statistics to back up my claims. Instead, I am speaking on personal experience and observation, when I say posit that Chinese food culture is inherently more sanitary than that of the West. Western societies have developed higher degrees of sanitation standards, in part to compensate for a food culture which is in and of itself, relatively unhygienic. Had we been slicing our food into little bits, cooking everything on a wok, and not using our fingers, we might have been able to allow our sanitation standards to slide a bit as well. Alright, I’m off to get some stir-fried beef and boiled spinach.



To my Chinese readers…

Posted in Culture Clash at 4:58 pm by Benjamin Ross

Recently, I have received several blog responses from some of you who think that my blog is too negative on China. I know that as a foreigner, it can be easy to nitpick and rant about aspects of China which we may find annoying, disturbing or completely nonsensical. This is not my intention in this blog.

One of the most common manifestations of humor in the United States is what we call “satire.” My Chinese-English dictionary translates “satire” as 讽刺文学, but I am not sure this definition is completely accurate.

Satire derives its humor from mockery, which is a polite word for “makin’ fun of stuff.” Satirists do not necessarily make fun of a person, a thing, or an idea, because they are opposed to it. Rather, they choose topics which are well-known, thus making them universally laughable. Simply put, we laugh at these topics because they are capable of being laughed at, not because they are deserving of being laughed at.

It happens that I live in China, so most of the funny things I encounter on a daily basis pertain to China. If I was in the United States and ran into the following tattoos, I would certainly write a blog on them as well.

wrong chinese character tatoos
photos taken from hanzi smatter

When we laugh at these tattoos, we are not making a judgment about all Americans and their inability to properly carve Chinese characters permanently into their skin (which for the record, I think is much more ridiculous than making an English mistakes on a sign or a menu). Instead, we are picking out one little piece of our everyday lives which is worthy of a laugh.

So please do not take my satire at face value. Look at it for what it is, comedy. In return, I will try to put more focus on exposing the comical aspects of American society, and believe me there are a ton.

If you are interested in more examples of American satire, I recommend you check out www.theonion.com, or watch the following TV shows:

The Simpsons (辛普森家族)

Saturday Night Live

The Daily Show with John Stewart

Or if you are really confident in your English level, try to find some stand-up comedy from George Carlin.



Some things are better off when left untranslated

Posted in Curious English, Linguistics at 11:16 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is a shipping box I saw in a restaurant tonight. Did they really need to translate (or should I say transliterate) the Chinese into pinyin? I can’t imagine “texianweijin” and “fuzhoukangyoumaoyiyouxiangongsi” would be any more comprehensible to a non-Chinese person than the characters themselves. FYI: The content of the box is “special fresh MSG.”



Fuzhou Foreign Idol (Part 2)

Posted in Me on TV, Random Goofiness at 7:33 pm by Benjamin Ross

continued from Fuzhou Foreign Idol (Part 1)

After days of anticipation, my latest television endeavor kicked off this weekend. Unlike my first TV show in China which was a lackadaisical variety show designed at showcasing goofy foreigners, the new show was a regimented talent show…also showcasing goofy foreigners. The show was called “SuperMe,” aptly named after Hunan Television’s “Super Girls,” which is a clone of the USA’s “American Idol” which was of course was named after the UK’s “Pop Idol.”

The premise was simple. 8 non-Chinese contestants, 3 judges, and a hard drive full of zany sound effects. We would all sing a Chinese pop song, and at the end of the show, one of us would emerge as the “hero” of SuperMe.

The show began as the 8 of us lined up, dancing in a semi-circle (As I mentioned in part 1, in China foreigners on TV always dance). One by one, we each came to the center, taking turns doing our own little dance. I did my personal version of the Macarena, complete with hand motions and hip shaking. After the dance, all eight contestants were ushered into two rows of seats off to the side of the circular main stage.

Chinese American Idol
Me doing the Macarena in front of millions of Chinese viewers

The format was simple and blatantly derivative. One-by-one the contestants would come to the stage and sing. After their performance, each contestant would have a little chat with the Chinese Ryan Seacrest. Then a panel of three judges would give their criticisms and a score from 1 to 10. Like the entire show, the judges were perfect clones of those on American Idol. “Randy” was a younger looking Chinese guy, with a round face, and a knack for constructive criticism. “Paula” was an attractive young lady, who made more comments on our clothes and cuteness than on our singing. And “Simon” was….. Simon, which meant he was a complete prick most of the time because Simon is always honest and….hey…most of us really were pretty pathetic. Between songs, a guy off to the side of the stage with a keyboard and a laptop, added token sound effects every three to four seconds. From bells, to slap bass, to incessant robot sounds, the soundman would not lay off the effects (nor the ritalin apparently) until every single millisecond of potential silence was thwarted by digital cacophony.

Simon Randy Paula China
the judging panel: that’s “Randy” on the left, “Paula” in the middle, and “Simon” on the right.

“So, contestant x,” booing a ding ding, baaaam. “How do you think you performed?” ring, ring, bangadanga doooooo “Well I thought I did all right.” wooo waa waaaaah. BAAAM…….duh-DUH!. And on and on. I think all of China (Hong Kong and Taiwan included) use the same $5 sound effect CD for producing their television shows, because this obnoxious background flare can be heard on just about any live Chinese TV show.

Whenever a foreigner is on TV in China, there is a high potential for humor, as the outsider’s unfamiliarity with Chinese customs and language, can provide a wealth of laughter for this mostly homogenous nation. This was going to be different, however. I was not going to allow a hideous performance of a Chinese pop song bring entertainment to the masses at my expense. With memories of my shattered childhood dream of being the sixth New Kid on the Block in the back of my mind, I was on a quest. This was my chance to make it in the world of pop music. I was going to give a solid performance and WIN!

To clear a few things up…I am not a good singer. That being said, I can sing Chinese songs much better than most foreigners in China. Let me explain. Like every American who comes to China, I hated karaoke at first…hated it like the plague. There was nothing worse than having to sing a cheesy Chinese pop song in front of a large group of people whose language I couldn’t even speak properly. As a foreigner living in China, by default, you can expect to be invited out to sing karaoke at least once per month. Rather than sulk and complain about how terrible the songs are and how much I hate public singing, I figured that if I was going to be singing karaoke at least once a month, I might as well have some fun with it, and possibly garner myself some face in the process. Thus, unlike most of the other contestants, who were learning a Chinese song for the first time and reading it in pinyin (Chinese Romanization) from teleprompters, I had a song pre-prepared.

fuzhou foreign idol
Look out Taylor Hicks..Eggroll Patrol is in the house tonite!

The song I chose to sing was called ben pao (click to listen to original) which translates to “run fast.” Of the plethora of horrible Chinese pop songs, ben pao is one of the few which I have found to have a listen-to-able melody and decent lyrics. I had learned it when I had a regular gig playing guitar in a Chinese bar, and have used it as one of my stock songs whenever I want to bring my A-game to the karaoke bar.

I had sung ben pao in public countless times and this was to be my moment to shine. As Ryan and his female assistant explained the structure of the contest to the live audience, I thought to myself about how 24 lucky Americans had fought through fierce auditions and Hollywood Week to accomplish what I was able to achieve simply on account of the fact that I am not Chinese. This was…the one…the only…SuperMe! All I had to do was sing my song in key, and then sit back and wait for the Taylor Hicks comparisons to roll in. After Ryan explained the rules to the live audience, I approached the stage and was handed the microphone. I looked out and saw hundreds of Chinese faces eager to hear the first words come out of my mouth. “What is he going to sing?” “How is it going to sound?”

I’m sure they were all expecting something along the lines of Apu Nahasapeemapetalan singing the Star Spangled Banner. What they probably were not expecting was a foreigner who could actually sing a Chinese song with some degree of respectability.

Chinese audience
The studio audience, armed with spirit sticks.

As I approached the stage, the first few soft notes of ben pao played through the PA. The ensuing cheer of the crowd was so loud that I couldn’t hear the music. I hadn’t jumped in the pool yet, but was already gasping for air. I found my rhythm, and kicked off the first verse. The fact that it wasn’t a complete mess brought even more applause from the audience. This built my confidence. I continued singing, as the mellow verse built up to the chorus….”随风奔跑自由是方向”…Not only did I not suck, but I wasn’t half bad either. When I hit the high note of the song, albeit a half-step flat, the crowd cheered even harder. Arms swayed and blow-up spirit sticks banged together with ever-increasing intensity.

After my performance, the two hosts approached me, and a bit surprised at my performance, asked me how long I had been learning the song. Unprepared to give a witty Chinese answer, and too proud to take the whole thing seriously, I answered them “Oh, just a few minutes.” The hosts faked a laugh, and the joke fell flat on its face. That was permissible. I had sung well, and after all, it was a singing competition, right? Now on to the judges.

idol chris daughtry China
My Chris Daughtry pose

The show’s dialogue was all Chinese and I couldn’t understand everything coming out of the mouth of Randy, but he did say he liked my singing, and that my tone was accurate. However, he said he was more impressed by my beard than anything else. Staying in character, Paula had nothing of substance to say. She gave praise to my singing, and also mentioned that my beard was “cute.” Next came Simon. This guy was classic. He was in his forties, wore a white sweater with a collar shirt underneath, and as I learned later, was a bona fide Taiwan a one-hit wonder pop star from the early 90’s. In total Simonesque manner, he told me that my singing wasn’t bad but it was “a little too karaoke.” Then the beard comments continued to flow as Simon, followed by the other judges listed-off historical figures with beards whom I apparently resemble, Abraham Lincoln, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, etc. As the list grew, I added the inevitable comparison…”What about Osama Bin Laden?” I asked the panel in Chinese. This got the biggest laugh yet out of the crowd. “Ah yes, the American looks just like America’s biggest enemy,” Simon proclaimed. Everybody was having a grand ol’ time.

Now for the results. After considerable chatter between the judges, I was rewarded a 9.3, an 8.7, and an 8.5, not a bad score, but I had no reference point, since I had been the first contestant.

I don’t want to sound cocky, but the next few performers were bad, really bad. I’m not saying I’m Michael Bolton, but at least I sang the melody of my song halfway in tune. One of the contestants, a German guy named Maurice, was so terrible that Simon told him, in accented English, “If I was you, I would kill myself.” The other contestants and I were a little shocked, but the crowd ate it up. Randy and Paula continued with their mercy and constructive criticism. Somehow as terrible as these performances were, the scores remained decent, with most of them hovering around 8. I was distraught. I had memorized the words to my song, prepared in advanced, and had sung with more swagger than the other contestants, but the scores did not reflect this. Was it because I was the first to perform? Did the judges hold back on my score on the false premise that I had represented the norm rather than the exceptional of Fuzhou’s Chinese pop song singing foreigner contingent?

Chinese idol contestants
The foreign contestants eagerly await the results. Who will be the next SuperMe hero?

With seven performances complete, I was still in the lead, by only a fraction of a point. The final performer was a Vietnamese kid who stood about five feet tall, wore a top hat and had done the Moonwalk (admittedly better than my Macarena) during our opening dance segment. He was my final obstacle in the race to become the Super Me Hero. As he took the mic from Ryan and opened his mouth, my heart dropped. Unlike the other foreign contestants who either completely sucked, or like me, only sucked a little bit, this kid could sing. After the performance, he was praised by all the judges, even Simon, and given scores all over 9. There was nothing I could say. The dream was over. I was the SuperMe runner up, the forgotten second place hero, the Art Garfunkel of Fuzhou.

I had come to SuperMe prepared and focused. I had sung my song to the best of my ability. I had given it my all, but still had not accomplished my dream of stardom. Alas, there is always next month, as I have heard rumblings of a SuperMe II coming in April. I will keep you posted.

addendum: I just got word SuperMe will be showing on Friday April 6, at 8:20 PM on Fujian Southeast Television (福建东南电视台). It should be available in most parts of mainland China.

huang an
me and “Simon” after the show



Is Ron Jeremy responsible for 911?

Posted in Random Goofiness at 9:02 pm by Benjamin Ross

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Ron Jeremy
This photo of an alleged “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed” was posted on cnn.com today as the man who allegedly confessed to being involved with the September 11 attacks.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Ron Jeremy
I’m just a little worried that they might have picked up the wrong guy.



To Cheat or Not to Cheat

Posted in Culture Clash, Food and Drink, Personal Anecdotes at 2:30 pm by Benjamin Ross

I have a yard! This may not seem like much, but having a yard in front of your house in China is like having a personal parking space for your Suburban in New York City. It ain’t that common. The yard is modest, approximately 20 feet by 20 feet, and it is surrounded by a wooden fence. Like most things in China, the fence wasn’t intended to last very long, and in only 3 years since it was built, the white paint has washed off, and the wood has rotted. On nearly every fence in the apartment complex, hinges have fallen out of the rotten wood, and the gates to nearly all the fences are missing. Nobody else seems to mind, but when you have a dog and are trying to take advantage of the fact that you are part of the .0001% of the Chinese populace who has a piece of land connected to your home which is neither cement nor farmland, it can be quite annoying.

After several unsuccessful attempts at fixing the fence (every time I hammered in a nail, the wood crumbled in my hands), I settled on finding a carpenter to build a new gate. I figured this wouldn’t be too difficult, as China has a labor pool larger than most countries’ entire populations. But after two hours of asking around repair shops, and inquiring with construction workers, I still could not find anybody to fix the fence. What I did accidentally find however, was a street only a 20 minute walk from my house which had several small restaurants including one with food from Jiangxi province. Jiangxi cuisine, with its strong flavors and liberal use of chili peppers, is a welcome break from Fuzhou food which is bland and/or sweet. I had traveled there last May Day, and instantly feel in love with the food. Although Jiangxi borders Fujian, Jiangxi food is relatively sparse in Fuzhou, compared with other ‘foreign’ Chinese styles.

It was after one o’clock and the restaurant was virtually empty. The Chinese are particular about meal times, and lunchtime in Fuzhou is from 11 to 12. Eating at the “wrong time” can draw looks of concern and disbelief from Chinese people unaccustomed with our lax Western eating schedules. When I walked in, the cooks were sitting at a table eating the lunch they had cooked for themselves (There are no break rooms in China). Being the only customer, and a 6-foot white guy with a beard at that, the cooks looked up from their meal, and immediately asked me where I was from. I told them I was American, and asked if they were from Jiangxi, as was indicated by the sign. They said they were, and asked if I had been there. They were excited when I told them I had visited their hometown of Nanchang, and even more receptive when I told them how I thought their food in Jiangxi was much tastier than the food in Fuzhou.

The owner of the restaurant was a woman in her late 40’s who had been standing behind the counter. As I chatted with the men at the table, the owner handed me a menu. I was looking over the dishes on the menu, when out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the food which the cooks had been eating at the table. It looked and smelled exactly like what I had eaten during my trip to Jiangxi. Rather than ordering off the menu, I ordered what the cooks were eating, sour chopped beans with mashed pork (酸豆角肉末), dry wok cabbage (干锅包菜), and processed bamboo with pork (笋干炒肉丝). All three of these dishes were chocked full of hot peppers. I asked what the price of the dishes were and the owner told me it would be 13 kuai for the beans and pork, 10 kuai for the cabbage, and 12 kuai for the bamboo. After ordering, I walked down the street to buy a drink.

When I returned to the restaurant, my food still wasn’t ready, so I picked up the menu, and began plotting the next meal at my newest restaurant score. As I was glancing through the menu, one item caught me by surprise. It was the sour chopped beans with mashed pork. The manager had told me they were 13 kuai, but according to the menu, they were 10 kuai. I politely brought this to her attention.

“Oh, that price on the menu is the old price.” she explained.

“Old price?”

“Yes, the price of beans at the market has gone up, so now instead of 10 kuai, it’s 13.”

I am well aware that the value of the RMB has been fluctuating of late, but I certainly hadn’t heard anything about a sudden spike in the price of domestically grown beans, especially not one of 30%.

“We just haven’t changed the menu,” she continued.

“Um-hmm,” I responded, unconvinced. I continued scrolling through the menu until I found…dry wok cabbage, 8 kuai. Now I was getting angry.

“Excuse me lao ban (polite term for “boss),” it says here that the dry wok cabbage is 8 kuai, but you told me 10. She sensed I had caught her in a lie, but in an attempt to keep face replied,

“Oh, that’s the old price too. Sorry about that.”

I looked for the processed bamboo with pork, but couldn’t find it on the menu, so I didn’t have an argument on it, (12 kuai is actually a pretty standard price for that dish) but I was still perturbed.

When the food was ready, the owner counted up the total. It came to 32 kuai: 12 kuai for the bamboo, 10 kuai for the beans and pork, and 8 kuai for the cabbage, plus 2 kuai for 2 servings of rice. Although she hadn’t admitted that she had tried to cheat me, and she didn’t apologize, at least she had charged me the fair price without me having to argue. I was willing to put the whole thing behind me…that was until I handed her a 100 kuai bill, plus two one kuai coins. She put my money into the cash drawer, and then out of her wallet, pulled out two 10 kuai bills and a fake 50. Fake money is not uncommon in China, and usually comes from shady ATMs or taxi drivers. If you know what to look for, it’s not difficult to tell the real from the counterfeit, and this bill felt like it was fresh of the laser jet. This was the first time I have ever been handed fake money from an owner of a small business.

I told her to give me a different bill, and she pulled out another suspiciously crispy 50 from her wallet. Before she could hand it to me, I gave her a dirty look, and she pulled out a another bill which was a little older, worn in, and obviously legal tender. I took the bill and my food, and left without saying “thank you.”

The last thing I want to do is to use this incident as a caricature for all Chinese people. Every country has its assholes (or “bad eggs” as they are called in Chinese), and China (and the US) are no exceptions. However, it does seem to me that this type of behavior is quite common in the PRC, with “Well, it was your own fault for lettin em screw ya,” being the prevailing attitude. And it’s not just because I am a foreigner either. I have seen Chinese do it to other Chinese as well.

I have several un-scientific possible explanations for this behavior . One is that because of China’s recent history of famines and hardship (50’s, 60’s and 70’s), it is possible that at those times one might have had to cheat simply in order to survive. In the past 30 years, China’s economic situation has improved drastically, but people’s mindsets have not been able to keep pace with the rapid economic change, thus these values still exist.

My other possible explanation is that because of China’s dense population and ubiquitous small businesses, Chinese entrepreneurs always focus on the current sale—Maximize profit on the first transaction, because there might not be a second. Whereas in the US, businesses are more focused on the relationship with the customer—Build a good relationship, even if it involves loss up-front, and the customer will come back again. One example of this mentality is that in China, no matter how terrible the service has been, how many times the order was screwed up, or how many hairs, insects, or miscellaneous animal parts I didn’t order have ended up in my food, never once have I received a free meal, or even a discount, due to a kitchen error. This concept can be taken to the extreme—Rip off the customer the first time, because he might not come back anyway, even if he is satisfied.

My final explanation deals with Chinese views of relationships. Confucianism and the concept of hierarchy are deeply ingrained in Chinese culture. One’s ‘position’ in relation to another bears considerably more significance than it would in the West, and I have seen Chinese people do things for friends and family that I would never expect Westerners to do. This treatment is also extended towards guests. For example, if a Chinese person had a house with one bed and one guest, and a house guest came for the weekend, the guest would never sleep on a couch. The host would sleep on the couch, and insist that his guest slept in the bed. To ask the guest to sleep on the couch (a normal practice by Western standards) would be rude and unacceptable in China.

As a foreigner in China, you are a de facto guest any place you go, and the Chinese treat you as such. My first month in China, I was constantly bombarded with gifts, flowers, expensive tea, free banquets, and presidential treatment. My former colleague Wily described it best when he said, “I’m only a teacher, but sometimes they treat me like I’m Mao Zedong.”

On the other hand, the treatment of (non-foreign) strangers is quite disturbing to Western eyes. Strangers never greet one another, shop attendants are almost always rude and unhelpful, and when somebody is publicly injured (i.e. car/bike accident) people will often walk right by without even offering help.

To boil it down to a simple overgeneralization, Chinese treat their friends, family, and guests, on the whole more hospitably than Westerners, but they treat strangers like lepers with BO. In the West, where one’s ‘position’ is not as important, our treatment of strangers is more open, but our actions towards friends, family, and guests, are not at par with the Chinese. To break it down to an even simpler overgeneralization, Westerners value equality, while Chinese value hierarchy.

The tendency to cheat strangers could be an extension of this. Customers are strangers, hence social responsibility to them is lower in China than it would be in the West, just as social responsibility to friends, family, and guests is lower in the West than it is in China.

Again, these are only possible suggestions to what happened today. One event is often not indicative of a larger trend. It’s possible that the owner of the restaurant was merely a part of that large demographic of dishonest people who can be found in any locale. However, I also do believe that the concept of honesty is culturally defined. To what degree this varies across different cultures I am still wondering. There certainly are situations in our culture where cheating and lying are permitted as well. When I describe the events at the Jiangxi restaurant to other Chinese people, they all take my side and insist that the shop owner’s behavior was unacceptable. But regarding a behavior as unacceptable does not always mean one will refrain from partaking in it himself. So is it possible that cheating and lying would be more acceptable in one culture than another? Furthermore, do economics play a role in determining what level of honesty is acceptable? Does a society plagued by famine and underdevelopment, by default bring arise to dishonesty, simply as a means of Darwinian survival?

I am still contemplating whether or not to return to the restaurant. One option is to firebomb the place, but I imagine that would get me kicked out of China. Melody suggested explaining the situation to the owner, and rather than picking a fight, turn it into a learning experience for them, and hopefully return one day as a customer. I’m thinking this is probably a more productive option…and that cabbage was soooo good. I’m open to suggestions.



Fuzhou Foreign Idol (Part 1)

Posted in Me on TV, Random Goofiness at 9:23 pm by Benjamin Ross

A few days ago I received a phone call from a friend asking if I wanted to be on a Chinese TV game show. The pay was alright (500 RMB, aprox. $60 USD), and I’m generally not one to give up the chance to make a complete ass of myself to a television audience larger than many European nations.

Chinese TV game show
In China, anybody can be on a game show…as long as you aren’t Chinese.

This won’t be the first time I will have appeared on a Chinese game show. During my first year in Fuzhou, I made frequent appearances on a show broadcast on the Fujian provincial TV station, and shown all over Southeast China. The show was a cross between America’s Funniest Home Videos and Double Dare. Only instead of Bob Saggat and Mark Summers, the show was hosted by a Chinese guy who looked like Mr. Sparkle, and a girl who wore more makeup than a hooker at a costume ball. For each episode six foreigners would be chosen to dress up in traditional Chinese costumes with cowboy hats, and compete in a mix of activities akin to those of Mark Summers’ famed physical challenges. I appeared on the show four or five times, and because the foreigner community in Fuzhou is relatively small, most of the other contestants were people I knew.

The show would begin as two Chinese muscle-men wearing nothing but speedos banged on a large gong on the side of the stage. After each successive bang of the gong, one of the contestants would emerge through a cloud of artificial fog, and dance his way to center stage. (Foreigners on Chinese TV always have to dance.) After all of the contestants had arrived on stage, we would be joined by two Chinese dancers, who would lead us in a semi-choreographed line dance. (see video clip) We would then be divided into two teams and compete in various events which would expose our own respective stereotypes, and emphasize the fact that no matter how long we had lived in China, we still were not Chinese. The events involved tasks such as reading a Chinese poem off a board of calligraphy, or singing a Chinese song into a microphone, while simultaneously listening to it for the first time through headphones.

Some events involved eating and drinking. One of our personal favorites was a Chinese beer drinking contest, where we would race to see who could polish off a tall glass of Qingdao in the shortest amount of time. In one of the more Double-Dare-esque events, we would compete in a dumpling eating contest, only the dumplings had to be fed to the contestant by one of his teammates who would stand behind him and operate the chop sticks.

Fuzhou Fujian TV show
Wily (cut) and I (white cowboy hat) pathetically attempt to act out “Aladdin.” Rolf of course, doesn’t get it.

In another silly event, one team member would stand and face the audience, while a giant screen behind him projected an English word. The other two contestants would then have to act out the word, while the other one had to guess it…in Chinese. Usually the words were quite simple, such as names of animals or fruits, but sometimes they would come up with obscure words such as “astronaut” or “Aladdin.” On one occasion when I was doing the acting, the word “cock” came up on the screen. I was lost for actions until the host reminded me that “cock” actually means “male chicken.”

The end result was usually a train wreck, which was exactly what the producers wanted. To put it in an American perspective, imagine a game show where an Indian immigrant who barely speaks English, has to sound out the words “Welcome to the Kwiki-Mart, Would you like a slurpie?” from a large sign board as a crowd of young American children laugh and cheer him on. All I can say is that if our game show ever came out in the US, the ACLU would be all over it like Fred Phelps at a gay pride parade.

From an artistic standpoint, the show (like most Chinese TV) was pathetic at best. However, it was amusing to be able to turn on the TV every Sunday night and watch people you know get buffooned in front of millions. It was also amusing to be introduced to my students’ friends and families, only to find they already recognized me from TV. All in all, the mockery was fun and games, and you only got humiliated if you took it seriously, which nobody did.

Chinese TV foreigner
more word guessing game, and first rate acting

As one-dimensionally entertaining as the first show was, it was finally cancelled about a year ago. This came as bad news to most of the Fuzhou foreign community, who not only got a kick out of being on TV, but also enjoyed the 400 RMB (approx $50) paycheck for each appearance. So it was good news to all to hear there will be a new foreigner show on the airwaves in Southeast China. The new show, which is on a different network, is going to be a singing competition between eight contestants who will all be foreigners. The contestants will be judged by a panel of three judges, who will rate them on their singing ability, and give an award to the best one. Hmmm…I don’t think ANYBODY has ever done a show like this before. Presumably, we will all suck, and this will provide entertainment to millions of Chinese people who watch this ridiculous programming simply because there is nothing better on the tube.

This time though the show is going to be different. Yes, it is still a competition, and yes, it will still derive its humor on the folly of the non-Chinese, but this time I have a plan. I am going to WIN! No more embarrassing cultural gaffs, no more fumbling over words, no more goofing off. This time I am in it to win it, and get the last laugh. I have been honing my skills in Chinese karaoke rooms for the past two years, and now is my chance to shine on the national stage. The competition will be fierce. It consists of two German guys, an Indonesian girl, an old guy from the Philippines, a Scottish girl, my former colleague Wily from Canada, a Vietnamese kid who does a mean Michael Jackson impersonation, and a guy who’s name I can’t even pronounce. They are all going down! I will be representing the USA, and I will be the next Fuzhou Foreign Idol!!! Who will join me in my quest? Results should be in by Tuesday. Stay tuned.

continued in Fuzhou Foreign Idol (Part 2)

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