Are you NOT Asian? Do you have a Talent? Chinese TV needs YOU!

Posted in Me on TV, Random Goofiness at 8:58 pm by Benjamin Ross

Several weeks ago, I was interviewed for a story by the Christian Science Monitor on the current rage over foreigners on Chinese TV. As readers of past posts probably know, it isn’t too difficult to get on TV in China, (provided you’re not Asian) as simply looking different is still much of a novelty in the Middle Kingdom. The first time I ever did a Chinese TV show, I remember thinking to myself what the equivalent would have been if it had been done in the US. The image which came to mind was having an Indian who barely spoke English get up on stage and stumble through the words “Welcome to the Kwik-E-Mart. Would you like a slurpie?” as a studio audience of American teenagers laughed at his miserable pronunciation. The ACLU would have a field day, but for some reason, this kind of thing flies in China, so long as it is the gringos who are the but of the jokes.

The omnipresent American Idol-esque Chinese judging panel

The current craze in China is American Idol formatted shows. It started with the Supergirls Show (Hunan TV’s version of American Idol which was a hit all over China), then there was Dream China (CCTV’s own “We’re better than you, Hunan TV!” American Idol singing show). Now however, the American Idol format has branched out into programming which have little to do with singing at all. It is to the point where I would not be surprised if Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell were brought in to judge the 2008 Beijing Olympic Gymnastics competition.

Consider my last show, which was the one reported in CSM. It was essentially a modified craptacular, with the only modification being the addition of American Idol style judges.

Here was the lineup. There was a young female student who played the bamboo flute, 3 young children who did a kung fu routine, a middle-aged guy who rode a bicycle around in a circle while hanging off of it and pedaling with his hands (among other stunts), an even older guy who did tricks with an oversized yo-yo, and my own favorite, a woman who balanced herself barefoot on top of eggs, while spinning a flaming hoola hoop around her waist. Finally, there was me, the white guy who could sing a Chinese song.

Yo-Yo man enthralls the audience with his yo-yoing.

After each performance, a panel of 3 judges, who each apparently had sufficient knowledge of flute playing, singing, kung fu, bike trickery, yo-yoing, and flaming-hula egg balancing, would make judgments on the worthiness of each “talent.” After giving the contestants a run down of their strengths and weaknesses, each judge would give them either a “pass” or a “fail.” If the contestant was passed by 2 judges, they would receive a prize of 1000 RMB. If they failed, they would get nothing.

For my performance I chose to sing the song 挪威的森林 by 五百 (The Forests of Norway by WuBai). WuBai is a Taiwan singer and guitarist who has been around since the 90’s, and is well-known by most Chinese youth. Forests of Norway is one of my own personal favorite Chinese songs, so I had no qualms singing it in front of an audience of several million Chinese viewers. Fortunately, the producers realized that my value as a novelty far exceeded my value as a talent, so they dressed me up to the part, which included a spiky wig, a real guitar (which I fake strummed) and paper maché shark encasing around my mic stand (one of WuBai’s trademark stage props).

The big highlight of the show was that the “Paula” judge was going to be played by a famous actress named Jin Ming. The producers wanted to set up a canned dialogue between Jin Ming and me, and so they introduced me to her prior the show. This is not the first time I have been introduced to a well-known Chinese celebrity and having no idea who they were, had to fake interest. Jin Ming had been the star of a popular sitcom called “Qing Qing He Bian Cao” which apparently everybody in China had been in love with about ten years ago. She had played the young cute teenage girl on the show…like a Chinese Punky Brewster.

hoola hoop eggs
Flaming Hoola Egg Woman displays her talent to an audience of millions.

The plan was for me to strike up a flirtatious conversation with Jin Ming after my performance. I was to tell her how I used to watch Qing Qing He Bian Cao back in America and was “so honored to finally meet her in person.” This seemed like an ostensibly improbably situation, considering that I, as a foreigner living in China for three years had never even heard of the show, let alone watched it back in the US. Nonetheless, the subplots just added to the humor of the whole situation. I obliged with little reluctance. The stage manager instructed me to begin my conversation with Jin Ming in Chinese, then purposely garble up my words, get frustrated, and ask to speak her in English. This I did have a problem with, since I have already made my rounds through the laowai TV self deprecation circuit, and figured I had graduated to playing with the big boys. But alas, how much of what people see on TV is real anyway? After all, I was already wearing fake hair, playing a fake guitar, and had construed a fake obsession with a TV show I had never even heard of.

bicycle bike flag trick
Bike Man stands on top of a moving bike, while waving his flag at the audience.

Sensing that a 6 foot white guy with spiky hair, an electric guitar, and a mic stand which looked like a leftover prop from Jaws would steal the show, my act was placed at the end. When I came out from behind the set, there was a sea of screaming Chinese audience members all yelling and waving spirit sticks as if I had just scored the game-winning touchdown. This was literally the closest I would ever get to my childhood aspirations of performing on Star Search. I still had not completely memorized the words to the song, so one of the crew members had written the Chinese characters on a poster board behind the cameras. Accordingly, a shot of the teleprompter was conveniently placed into the final edit of the show. Regardless of my lack of preparation, and some slight nerves, I was able to make it through the song, and even added a few raisings of the arms, hip gyrations, and the famous WuBai “AAA aaaa AAAAAAHHHHHH” scream in the middle of the song. The performance was a hit, and I felt comfortable I would “pass” and get my 1000 RMB.

Ben Ross 五百 shark
That’s me with the wig, fake guitar, and giant shark mic stand.

After my performance ended, I had my little chat with the host and hostess which included the typical jokes about my singing and my race, but without the typical Osama bid Laden comparisons I normally draw on TV (I shaved just before the show).

Next it was my turn to listen to the judges. The first judge (“Randy”) told me that my Chinese was good, but that my singing was just okay, and that I needed to improve (I think he meant sing in key). Next up was Jin Ming, the token “Paula” of the evening. Per my instructions, I immediately began gushing in amazement.

“Jin Ming, it is so incredible to finally meet you. I am so nervous to perform in front of you. It is so great to see you in person. Back in the United States I used to always watch your show…your show….ni’ga, ni’ga, ni’ga…uhhhhh…Qing qing…..uhhh…ni’ga, ni’ga, ni’ga….Qing qing he….Qing qing he bian cao.”

Before I go on, I should mention that Jin Ming was probably one of the most humble and decent celebrities I have ever met. She was friendly, well-mannered, and had not a touch of the arrogance which you would expect from a young, attractive, actress admired by an audience larger than the population of Indonesia. And here I was, the new white guy on the block, causing her to lose major face, by forgetting the name of her TV show which I had just professed to love…on national television.

Jin Ming tried to make the best of the embarrassing situation, by talking her way through it.

hosts chinese game show
After my performance, I rap with the hosts before turning to the judges.

“Did you really watch the show? I think you’re lying. You’re a liar.” I looked back at her and decided it was time to improvise.

“I don’t care. I’m still so happy to see you. Can I give you a hug?” I asked. Hugging is still somewhat risqué on Chinese TV, but what the hay?

“Sure, come on up.” Jin Ming replied, going along with my cue. I ran up to the judge’s table, and gave her a big hug–Damage control successful.

Next was “Simon” who per job description pointed out all of the small technical errors I had with my delivery. After all, this was me singing, and you could probably write an entire textbook out of my singing gaffs alone.

After the judges had all given their two cents, they revealed their results. All 3 of them passed me, and I jumped for joy knowing I would be going home with 1000 RMB (approx 120 USD).

China may be one of the only places in the world where one’s ascension to stardom can come solely based on racial characteristics. I am now confident that any foreigner can achieve success in Chinese show business as long as he has a decent command of Mandarin, the right numbers on his cell phone, and of course a white (or black) face. Will the novelty of foreigners in China ever dip below the level of acceptable television programming material? My guess is “yes” but that point is still several years away. In the meantime, I will be preparing for my next Backstreet Boy audition.

jin ming  金民
Jin Ming and me after the show



Mao Zedong Paintballed in Fuzhou?

Posted in Fujian at 3:08 pm by Benjamin Ross

The statue of Mao Zedong in Wuyi Square in Fuzhou has recently been either the subject of a political statement, or an unlucky bystander in the face of errant paintball fire. A friend of mine first noticed the giant paint spot yesterday, and when we came back today, it was still there. Historical precedents have shown strict penalties for those known to publicly deface Mao. The source of the paint (as far as I have heard) is still unknown.

Mao Zedong Statue Paint
A closeup of the paint spot
Some time in the last 3 days, the Mao statue in Fuzhou’s Wuyi Square was pelted by paint in the lower part of the coat.



How To Order Chinese Food Dot Com

Posted in Announcements, Food and Drink at 10:08 pm by Benjamin Ross

The past few weeks, posts on this blog have been quite infrequent. The main reason for this is that I have been spending most of my time working on my new site, How To Order Chinese Food Dot Com (www.howtoorderchinesefood.com). The new site is now up and running and will be a comprehensive (as possible) guide to Chinese food geared towards Western taste buds. There are listings of different Chinese dishes organized by both content (beef, pork, veggie, etc) and region. Each item contains a picture, Chinese characters, pinyin, and an English description. In the future I will have many of the pages in PDF so that they can be printed off and taken along for meals to aid in ordering.

There is also a glossary to Chinese culinary words. If you’ve ever wondered how to say shiitake mushroom or MSG, this will be a good spot to look. In addition to Chinese food there is also a page on Western fast food terminology in Chinese, including those words specific to McDonald’s. For now the site is still in its primordial phase, but will will be expanding rapidly in the next few days.

How To Order Chinese Food Dot Com is the result of over 3 years of subsisting on Chinese food, and I’ve had a lot of fun creating it. Try it out, and check back frequently for updates. If you have any comments, corrections, or suggestions, please feel free to leave them as a comment to this post or you can e-mail me privately at bensinchina *at* yahoo.com.



Chinese Tourism

Posted in Culture Clash, Travel Log (Asia) at 9:21 am by Benjamin Ross

After a last second travel plan, I have been spending the past two days in Wuyi Shan, in Northern Fujian. Wuyi Shan is what I like to call a “scenic spot.” I am convinced that every Chinese province has a token “scenic spot” which is allegedly the most beautiful place in China. Visit Zhejiang and they will surely tell you about West lake. Go to Anhui and they will tell you about Huang Shan. Visit Qinghai and you will hear stories about Qinghai Lake, and on and on. From my experience, most “scenic spots” are worth a weekend trip, but certainly not a trip across the country. That being said, after three years in Fujian, I felt like I owed it to myself (and Fujian’s 32 million inhabitants) to check out Wuyi Shan.

Tourists in Meizhou Island (Fujian) standby waiting for instructions from the leader.

One of my favorite things about visiting Chinese scenic spots is observing the other tourists. As China’s economy continues to grow and expand, more and more middle class Chinese are finding themselves with disposable incomes. One use for this disposable income is travel. The travel industry in China is quite young, and as most Chinese still don’t have the concept of a family vacation, the idea of picking up and visiting a new place for leisure is still a relatively new idea. Thus, generally speaking the Chinese are still quite inexperienced in this endeavor. Consider this conversation I had at an English corner, after my first big China traveling excursion in the summer of 2004. I had only been in China 3 months, spoke minimal Chinese, and did a three week solo trip to Xi’an, Chengdu, Kunming, and Xishuangbanna. After telling my university students about the trip here was the dialogue which transpired.

Tourists in Xiahe, Gansu eagerly wait to board the bus and get whisked off to the next destination.

student: How do you know about Chengdu?

me: I read all about it in a book I bought in the US.

Student: How did you get to Chengdu?

me: I rode the train.

student: How did you get on the train?

me: I bought a ticket to Chengdu and showed the ticket to the lady at the train station.

student: Where did you get your ticket?

me: I bought it at the train station.

student: How did you know where the train station was?

me: I bought a map, found where it said “train station” and walked there.

My students were all amazed that a foreigner who didn’t even speak Chinese could make it halfway around the country by himself without getting injured, killed, or abducted by aliens. Part of the reason for this is that independent travel in China is still rare. Most Chinese tourists travel in herds organized by China’s ubiquitous “travel companies.” The herds can be seen at any scenic spot, and are a sight in and of themselves. A crowd of people all wearing the same colored hats follow around a tour leader who carries a flag of the same color. As they follow the leader, he shouts instructions at them over a megaphone. I have been warned several times by Chinese friends that I should travel in a tour group, and that independent travel is too dangerous. So far, I am not convinced.



China Blog Awards

Posted in Announcements at 4:34 pm by Benjamin Ross

These days, the China blogosphere there is rapidly expanding with cutting-edge and insightful sino-journalism becoming every more omnipresent. (Unfortunately the same cannot always be said for mainstream media.) To recognize the amateur talent out there, the folks at chinalyst.net have organized the 2007 China Blog Awards, and Midwesterner in the Middle Kingdom (the “official” name of this blog) is up for Best Personal Blog. Check it out, and vote for me if you think I am worthy. If not, there are many other China blogs out there which also deserve your vote. By the way, if anybody is interested, my current favorite China blogs are Chinalawblog, Sinosplice, & The Humanaught. All are worth several hours of your time.



老外菜, Chinese Food Recommendations for Foreigners

Posted in Announcements, Food and Drink at 1:41 pm by Benjamin Ross

I’m in the process of developing a new website which will function as a guide for foreigners to order Chinese food in China. The idea is to compile a relatively comprehensive listing of common Chinese dishes including a picture, Chinese, pinyin, and English. The idea is that people who don’t speak Chinese (or those that do) can then print out the Chinese characters, or use the pinyin to order dishes, that they would otherwise not be able to order. Eventually, I am going to break things down into regional cuisines, and include several pages on vegetable disambiguation, noodle terminology, etc, but I am still in the process of taking photos, writing text, and working on format. For starters, here’s a list of Chinese dishes, which generally seem to appeal to Western taste buds, and can be ordered across China. If you have any suggestions or comments, feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me at bensinchina at yahoo.com. Enjoy.

kungpao kung pao chicken 宫保鸡丁 gong1 bao3 ji1 ding1 Kung Pao Chicken; a sweet and spicy Sichuan chicken dish cooked with peanuts, dried hot peppers, and cucumbers.
chinese beef food 铁板牛肉 tie3 ban3 niu2 rou4 beef on a skillet; usually comes with green peppers and onions
chinese food beef with green peppers 青椒炒牛肉 qing1 jiao1 niu2 rou4 beef with green peppers
chinese food pork with green peppers 青椒炒肉丝 qing1 jiao1 chao3 rou4 si1 Small stringy pieces of pork stir-fried with green peppers (sometimes green hot peppers), carrots, and onions.
chinese pork 鱼香肉丝 yu2 xiang1 rou4 si4 A sweet and slightly spicy pork dish cooked with wood ear mushroom and green hot peppers. Literally, the name of this dish means “smells like fish pork,” but if cooked properly, it will taste nothing like fish.
chinese food ribs 糖醋排骨 tang2 cu4 pai2 gu3 pork ribs braised in sweet sauce
(no picture yet) 菇老肉 gu1 lao3 rou4 sweet and sour pork
(no picture yet) 麻辣豆腐 ma2 la4 dou4 fu2 spicy Sichuan-style tofu
chinese tofu 家常豆腐 jia1 chang2 dou4 fu2 “homestyle” tofu
chinese bamboo 笋干炒肉丝 sun2 gan1 chao3 rou4 si1 dried and processed baby bamboo shoots stir fried with pork. Try asking for it with hot peppers (加辣椒 jia1 la4 jiao1)
chinese food sichuan szechuan potatoes hot peppers 干遍土豆丝 gan1 bian4 tu3 dou4 si1 Spicy Sichuan style potato slices cooked with hot peppers. This is the closest thing you are going to get to french fries in Chinese food.
chinese food vegetables green 炒青菜 chao3 qing1 cai4 炒青菜 is a general term for stir-fried vegetables. Just ask for 炒青菜and you will get the dafault vegetable of the day. For more options, go to the leafy vegetable page.
chinese cabbage bok choy 醋溜大白菜 cu4 liu4 da4 bai2 cai4 bok choy stir-fried with vinegar. If you like spicy food, ask for it with hot peppers (加辣椒 jia1 la4 jiao1).
egg fried rice 蛋炒饭 dan4 chao3 fan4 egg fried rice
curry beef rice 咖喱牛肉饭 ga1 li2 niu2 rou4 fan4 curry beef with rice; usually topped with potatoes carrot shards, and often a green vegetable. This dish is commonly served as a single person meal, rather than as a dish. Thus it makes for a great meal when you are eating alone, or not in the mood for going family style.
(no picture yet) 西红柿炒蛋 xi1 hong2 shi4 chao3 dan4 stir fried egg and tomatoes
(no picture yet) 红烧日本豆腐 hong2 shao1 ri4 ben3 dou4 fu2 red-cooked Japanese (egg) tofu
(no picture yet) 回锅肉 hui2 guo1 rou4 Sichuan style sweet/spicy pork fat
(no picture yet) 红烧肉 hong2 shao1 rou4 Chairman Mao’s favorite dish. Pork fat cooked in in a sugary sauce.



When I grow up I (don’t) want to be a barber…

Posted in Barbershop, Business 'n Economics, Culture Clash at 9:50 am by Benjamin Ross

Allow me to reintroduce you to Mao Mao. She works at the Roman Barbershop and is from Fuqing, the small town, an hour outside Fuzhou where I spent my first year in a half in China. Like many Fuqingers, Mao Mao’s family emigrated (illegally I assume) to Japan when she was twelve. Her parents worked as cooks in Chinese restaurants, and she attended school with Japanese classmates. Mao Mao remained in Japan until she finished college, and then moved back to China.

barbershop china hairdresser
Mao Mao dries and styles my hair after my first wash at the Roman Barbershop.

Currently, Mao Mao works as a little sister, and makes around 800 RMB ($100 USD) per month. She has been in the hair industry for almost three years and this August will attend a month long training session, after which she will become a full-time barber.

Mao Mao was telling me about her career plan, when out of knee-jerk reaction I asked her, “Have you thought about looking for a white collar job, such as working in an import/export company? After all, you have a college education, and you speak fluent Japanese.”

Mao Mao was slightly taken back by my question, and replied, “While I was in Japan I decided I wanted to be a hairdresser. I want to work my way up the ranks and eventually be a hairdresser in an expensive salon. It’s my dream.”

I felt like an ass. Here was this young girl, on the verge of reaching her goal, and I was subconsciously attempting to talk her out of it, so that she could make a few more bucks by sitting in an office.

Upon analyzing the situation, I know exactly why I asked Mao Mao this question. Generally speaking, working in a barbershop is considered an undesirable job by Chinese standards. None of my former colleagues worked in a barbershop as a means to fulfill a dream. Rather, it was a logical choice after other factors, namely lack of further education, sealed off other career opportunities. Most of them would jump at a different opportunity if it were to present itself. Even Mr. Zheng confided to me that he would gladly never do another haircut again if a chance to do business or switch careers were to arise. However, the chances of this happening are slim. None of the workers in my barbershop have college educations, and only a handful finished high school. None one of them can speak a foreign language. By Chinese standards, Mao Mao is far over-qualified to be working as a hairdresser.

I apologized to Mao Mao for asserting she should contemplate a career change, and explained to her why I had brought it up.

She responded. “I think my ideals and those of the other barbershop workers are quite different. I work in a barbershop because I enjoy it, and want to make it my career. The others do it just as a means to make money. I think it’s more of a Chinese thing. Chinese people usually don’t care about chasing their dreams. They just do stuff for money. In Japan, things are different. People choose a career because it is what they want to do, not because it is the only option. I lived in Japan from the time I was 12 until I finished college. Most of my best friends are Japanese. So in many ways, I think more like a Japanese than a Chinese.”



The Time China Blog, and other Media Grievances

Posted in Sino-US, Relations and Comparisons at 2:51 am by Benjamin Ross

Recently I have begun following the Time Magazine China Blog. Here is the gist of the past few posts. China produces fake products. China has phony environmental awareness programs. China says they are going to open up media restrictions for the Olympics, but we all know that it’s baloney. China wrongly incarcerates people who are not criminals. China has slave labor. China is cracking down on independent blogs, et cetera, et cetera.

What irks me about this blog is not that it is completely one-sided, but that it makes no attempt to understand or explain its opposition. It only takes a novice journalist to criticize China based on standards which would be applicable to the United States. A more skilled journalist would dig deeper and examine why the particular situation evolved the way it did.

This failure on Time’s part to provide decent journalism on China is nothing new in the American media, and it reflects a deeper problem. As Americans, we are cognizant of the conditions and historical events which gave rise to our political system. While our political/economic system isn’t without its own flaws, it is well-tailored to our culture and ideals. What Americans often forget is that the conditions and historical events which gave birth to the American system have not been identical around the world.

China’s history over the past 50 years has followed a different path from ours in the USA. While we were worrying about escalating gas prices and the threat of communists from far off continents, Chinese people were worrying about whether or not they would have enough food to eat or how many of their children would survive infancy. While McDonald’s was building an empire so that Americans could fulfill their 5000 calorie per day diets, Chinese people were subsisting on meals of cabbage and sweet potatoes. We endured Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. The Chinese endured Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward.

The hardship, turbulence, and insecurity of the past 50 years (and you could say the past few millennia as well) have a deep impact on Chinese people’s psyche. Although living conditions in China have rapidly improved since the Reform and Opening Up, the values which evolved under previous conditions will take far longer to dissipate.

Is it justifiable to put harmful chemicals into products to increase profits? Would it be more justifiable, or at least explainable, to do so, if increasing your profits meant the difference between being able and not being able to pay for your children’s medical bills? Are there ever situations where an authoritarian government and media censorship are necessary to ensure the continued development of an economy? I am not suggesting that the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” but a responsible journalist would at very least address them, and rather than simply using standards based on a country thousands of miles and several decades of development away.

By criticizing problems without analyzing the reason for their existence, the American media only adds to the current conception that the USA over meddles in other nation’s internal affairs. Those who believe that Chinese citizens are unaware of these issues because they are not staging massive demonstrations are using their own value system to judge 1.3 billion people. The Chinese have opinions as well, and many of them are ironically quite similar to those of Western journalists. The difference is that the Chinese understand the source of their problems, and realize it takes more than just a magic wand and a protest (or a few posts on time-blog.com) to make them go away.



Roman Barbershops and Chinese Consumerism

Posted in Barbershop, Business 'n Economics at 3:51 pm by Benjamin Ross

In July, Fuzhou is just about as hot as any place on earth. For my own sanity I have purposefully refrained from doing the Celsius to Fahrenheit conversions, but I am guessing the temperatures are regularly in the 100’s with humidity hovering somewhere between 95 and 98%. It’s the kind of weather where I walk outside and before I have even left my apartment complex, I have already broken a sweat. Yesterday, after a long bike ride in the heat, I decided to treat myself to a hair wash. For a change went to an upper tier (高等)barbershop, as opposed to my barbershop which is considered middle tier (中等).

The upscale barbershop I chose has a Roman theme and is located on Jintai Lu, one of Fuzhou’s more upscale, shopping streets. One of the little sisters at the Roman shop, named Mao Mao, used to work at my barbershop and I had promised her that one day I would come in to her shop to get a hair wash.

roman barbershop china
The marble floors and wooden furniture give the Roman barbershop an air of luxury which was absent in my barbershop.

From the first step into the Roman barbershop, the feeling is one of luxury and comfort. The walls the shop are decorated with Roman style columns. The mirrors and barber tables are all made of fine wood. The floor tiles are marble. There are hand-crafted wooden couches with fine upholstery and a wooden bookshelf with replicas of classic English novels. The walls are covered with fake but tasteful oil paintings. Even the bathroom is donned with wooden doors and fine metal work.

Along with the posch environment comes the expected price hike. A haircut in the Roman barbershop is 58 RMB and a hairwash is 24 RMB, compared with only 30 for a haircut and 12 for a wash in my shop.

After Mao Mao and I chatted for a few minutes, she took me to the washing area, which looked like a set of a Turkish bathhouse from a cheesy Hong Kong movie. As she washed my hair she asked me, “Do you think there is any difference between the hair wash here and the hair wash at the other shop?” Mao Mao asked me.

As Mao Mao massaged my head, I could feel that the shampoo was of higher quality than the cheap stuff used in middle tier barbershops, however the actual service she was providing me was of no difference than what was given in my shop.

couch barbershop china
The customer waiting area, with finely upholstered couches and coffee table.

“Not really,” I replied. “It seems pretty much the same.”

“That’s because I learned how to wash hair at your shop. The service here is exactly the same, but it is more expensive because of the atmosphere.”

Mao Mao finished up my two rounds of shampoo, then my conditioner and neck massage, and as she had indicated, everything she did in the Roman barbershop was exactly the same as in my old shop.

While Mao Mao was drying my hair I told her my thoughts on the Roman barbershop.

“This shop is really nice, but I probably won’t come back here too often. It’s nice to see you, but as you said, I can get the same service at the other barbershop for half the price.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.” Mao Mao said. “Most of our customers don’t necessarily come here for the service.”

“Is it the atmosphere that they like?” I asked.

“The atmosphere is important, but more than anything, our customers like to come here because a lot of rich people get their hair washed here. This makes it more appealing,” she said.

bathroom china
Even the bathroom doors were decorated.

This represents an interesting consumer pattern which I have noticed in other Chinese businesses as well. That is that wealthy Chinese people will pay high prices to know that they are patronizing a business which strictly caters to…other wealthy Chinese people.

It reminds me of a time I was at a bar in Fuzhou with a Chinese friend of mine who himself was a former bar owner. The bar had a pleasant ambiance, a good house band, and the beer was cheap, only 10 RMB per bottle. We were there on a Saturday night, and it was virtually empty.

“Why do you think business is so bad here?” I asked my friend.

“The beer is too cheap,” he replied. “Chinese people like expensive things. If the drinks are not expensive, the patrons will think it is not a good bar. They will not want to bring their friends there and risk losing face.”

In China, a product or service with a fancy package and an upped price tag will often generate more sales than an identical product sold at a discount price. As China’s nouveau riche demographic expands, so does the demand for high-end products and services. Whether these products and services are of higher quality than those at a lower price is questionable. However, for many what they are paying for is not necessarily better quality, but the image of better quality. As for me, I could do without the marble tiles and fancy upholstery. I’ll still be at the old barbershop, getting my hair washed for 12 RMB.



AIDS Education with Chinese Characteristics

Posted in Health and Medicine at 2:17 pm by Benjamin Ross

The other day I was having lunch with a Chinese friend when the conversation turned to homosexuality.

“What is your attitude about homosexuals?” he asked me.

“I don’t really have any problem with it. I think it’s a personal decision.” I told him.

“Me to. I think China has a lot of gay people, most of them are not open about it though. I agree. People should be able to be gay if they want, and others should respect their privacy. But I do think it is quite dangerous because of AIDS,” he replied.

Like anywhere in the world these days, AIDS is a problem in China. Up until about 5 or 6 years ago, AIDS was not talked about much in China. The government’s stance was that AIDS was a Western problem and that China need not concern itself with these matters.

Today this is not the case. The central government has realized that AIDS is no longer a problem which can just be ignored and expected to go away, and now AIDS receives regular coverage in Chinese TV, newspapers, and public health campaigns. When I was teaching in Fuqing in 2004, my university even displayed posters about AIDS prevention around campus. The language used on them was vague, and did not contain much information about prevention, but at least the problem was being acknowledged, which is the first step towards a solution.

In the past few years I have noticed the amount of AIDS coverage in the Chinese media has been steadily increasing. This should be a welcome change, since HIV/AIDS is one of the few physical ailments which, in theory could be eliminated by prevention education alone.

In the United States, this was the approach taken in the 1990’s, and the result was a barrage of advertisement and educational campaigns. The message was simple. AIDS is real; AIDS is deadly; There are 3 ways it is transmitted (mother to baby, sexual intercourse, sharing drug needles); Anybody is susceptible.

When I was in high school, every few months we would have an assembly or a guest speaker which would reinforce our AIDS education. It was a bit overkill, but it was effective. Talking to most Americans my age these days, there is little ambiguity over how AIDS is transmitted. Whether or not people take the proper precautions is another issue, but at least the knowledge is there.

In China the message is different: AIDS is real; AIDS is deadly; But you are much more likely to contract it if you are homosexual, a drug user, or a prostitute. The connections can be subtle, but there is an implied connection with AIDS and homosexuality that pervades a great deal of the AIDS literature in China. This stereotype was actively spoken against in the US in the 90’s, as we were constantly reminded “AIDS is not a gay disease.” In China it seems to be working the other way around.

As we continued our conversation about homosexuality, the topic shifted more towards that of HIV/AIDS. We were discussing the differing ratios of AIDS among homosexuals and heterosexuals, and this is how my friend explained it.

“In homosexual sex there is a high incidence of the tissue being torn. AIDS cannot survive in the air, but it is transmitted through blood. In “regular” sex, the chance of tissue being torn is much less, and if no blood passes, then the AIDS virus cannot be transmitted.”

While the first part of his answer is accurate, it was the last statement which had me concerned.

“What about other fluids?” I asked, trying not to be too graphic.

“What do you mean? AIDS is transmitted by the blood.”

“No not that…” I responded.

“Oh, other bodily fluids,” he replied, suddenly realizing what I was referring to “I don’t really know about that.”

My friend is a well educated, affluent, Fuzhou resident in his early thirties, who would presumably be well-versed in worldly matters such as HIV/AIDS. However, I think he, like millions of other Chinese, have been victim to a glitch in the public health educational campaign which implies that AIDS is still a gay disease.

While his statement about AIDS being easier to transmit though homosexual sex is accurate, the fact that he did not even know it was possible to contract it through heterosexual sex has grave implications, especially when you consider that China has over 1 billion people who are neither gay, prostitutes, nor intravenous drug users.

AIDS is one of very few medical ailments which could be eliminated by prevention education alone. But in order for the prevention education to work, it must be emphasized that individuals who refrain from those “immoral” activities are succeptable as well. Based on the current Chinese AIDS coverage, this is not the message I am receiving.

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