continued from Midwestern in the Sun Kingdom (Part 1)
It has now been almost a week since my last post and I apologize for the drop off in content, especially since I promised to blog from Japan. I am now back in Kansas City, and spending my first day or two attempting to live a somewhat normal lifestyle. Upon my arrival, I was promptly whisked to B.B.’s Lawnside BBQ, one of Kansas City’s finer BBQ establishments (with live blues taboot), to begin what would be an intensive 72 hour family reunion. Now that that’s over, I finally have some time to catch up with the Japan excursion.
I would be lying if I said that the recent lack of content was in no part due to my own negligence, but it is also due to restrictions put on my Internet usage by a particular youth hostel operator in Tokyo. Here’s how things transpired.
My first day in Tokyo was likely the most efficient day of travel I have ever had in my life. My first order of business was to visit the Yakasuni Shrine. After living in China 3 years, and hearing all the anti-Japanese rhetoric in regards to the shrine, there was no way I could go to Japan and not see it. Fortunately, it was coincidentally located a half hour walk from my youth hostel, so at 9 am I headed out to make my visit. After the shrine, I visited the local Harajuku, a hangout for trendy teenagers, Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s central shopping districts, the Meiji Shrine, and Yoyogi Park, an urban park with street performers, a skate park, and even breakdancing classes. I spent most of my day on foot, walking around these areas, trying to take in as much as possible. At 6 in the evening I saw a baseball game at the Tokyo Dome.
By about the fifth inning of the baseball game I was completely exhausted. I left the game early, and hopped on the subway back to my youth hostel. I had been using the subways to get from location to location, but had probably walked at least 5 miles exploring the various areas. I was completely exhausted (going on only about 8 hours sleep for the previous 48 hours), my feet were blistered from the walking, and I was ready to get back to the youth hostel early, take a shower, and relax in front of the computer screen for a couple hours. As I rode the train away from the Tokyo Dome, I had been thinking how incredibly efficient the Tokyo subway system was, and how easy it had been to get to all the areas I had wanted to go to, without any previous knowledge of Tokyo mass transit.
Ironically, it was at this very time when I was to have my first incident with Japanese mass transit. Before I go any further, I should mention that this was the only problem I had with Tokyo mass transit, and overall it is an excellent system. So this likely was an isolated incident.
Shinjuku Station is the most trafficked subway station in Japan, and I’m willing to bet it is one of the most trafficked stations in the world. My youth hostel was located one stop away from Shinjuku so whenever I wanted to return, I would have to go to Shinjuku first. According to my map, all I had to do was take the train from the Tokyo Dome to Shinjuku station, find the Shinjuku line, and then ride it for one stop. The previous night I had done the half hour walk from the hostel to Shinjuku, but after a day of walking and sore feet, the last thing I wanted to do was walk for another half hour.
To make a long story short, I spent an hour and a half following signs around Shinjuku Station, trying not to pass out from fatigue, only to find out later (through the advice of some friendly locals) that the Shinjuku line is actually located just down the street from Shinjuku Station. By the time I found the subway, what had originally been a plan to get back to the hostel by 8 and in bed by 10 had suddenly turned into getting back to the hostel at 10 and getting in bed by midnight.
When I finally made it back to the hostel, I took a shower, put on fresh clothes, picked up my laptop from my locker, and went down to the lobby for some much needed rest and relaxation. The past 72 hours had consisted of packing, throwing a party, riding planes, and touring around Tokyo with a few hours of sleep peppered in. I had had a productive day seeing Tokyo, and now was tired, mentally and physically, blistered, and worn out. After conquering the Tokyo subway, there was nothing which was going to get between me and about 3 hours of Internet therapy…so I thought.
As I was setting up my computer in the lobby, one of the young girls working at the hostel approached me.
“Are you Benjamin Ross?” she asked.
“Yes, that’s me. What’s wrong?”
Before she had said anything more I realized exactly what the problem was. The previous night when I had checked into the hostel, they had asked me to pay ahead of time for my 3 night stay. I had already booked online with my credit card, and had paid a $10 deposit to reserve my bed. On my last day in China, I had been paid in cash for my work on the TV show. The money had been given to me in the afternoon and my flight was at 8 am the following morning, so I hadn’t had a chance to get the money changed in China. RMB is notoriously difficult to convert into foreign currency, but I had planned on finding a place in Tokyo which could convert it to yen, and then using that money to pay for my hostel, rather than charging up my credit card. I had told the hostel employee of my plan, and asked if it was ok for me to give them my credit card as collateral, and then pay them the following day after I had exchanged all of my RMB. I told them that on the off chance, I could not get RMB, they could just charge my card. The staff complied, and said this would be ok as long as they could hold on to my credit card.
Exchanging my RMB into yen proved even more difficult than I had originally anticipated, and by the time I finally located a bank which would do it, it was too late, as they closed at 3:30!
I told this to the girl, apologized for the inconvenience, and asked if they could continue to hold onto my credit card, and that I would go back to the bank the following day before 3:30, exchange my money, and pay them in full.
“Follow me,” the girl said, as she took me to the hostel’s front entrance where behind a counter sat an old man whom she conversed with in Japanese.
“This is the owner,” she said, “He knows of your situation. He wants to know why you said yesterday that you would have the money today, and now you don’t have it.”
I told him about how I had gone to several banks, none of which would accept RMB and how I had finally found a bank which would, but it had closed at 3:30. The girl translated for the owner who was not amused.
“The owner says you said yesterday you would have the money, but today you do not have it. Why did you say you would get the money, but now you don’t have it?” she asked.
“Just like I told you. I thought I could get it, but it turned out changing RMB in Tokyo is much more difficult than I thought. Now I know where to get money, so it should be no problem tomorrow. In the meantime you guys can still hold onto my credit card.” I told her.
Again she translated, and the owner replied to her. She translated back to me, “He says you need to go out and get money now. There is an ATM in Shinjuku. You can ride the subway.”
At my level of exhaustion, and after already spending 2 extra hours in Shinjuku Station, there was no way I was going to go back to the station, in the heat, find an ATM, find the subway line again, come back, shower again, and relax in front of my computer, all in time to wake up early the following morning for my last full day in Japan.
I turned to her. “Listen, I understand you guys want the money now, but I am completely exhausted, injured, sleep deprived, and I just took a shower. Would it be possibly for me to just pay you tomorrow? You guys can hold on to my credit card, so there is no need to worry about me leaving without paying.”
“Let me ask the owner.” she said. She spoke to him for a few minutes in Japanese, and then the owner turned to me and said “NO…You get money or no stay!”
As much as I did not want to charge the stay to my credit card, my desire to pay in cash was not nearly as strong as my desire not to make another trip to Shinjuku Station.
“Ok you know what…don’t worry about it.” I said to the girl. “Just charge my 3 nights to my credit card, and we’ll have this all taken care of.” She translated to the owner, who scowled again and replied back to her. She translated to me.
“The owner wants to know why last night you refused to pay on your credit card, and tonight you want to pay with a credit card.”
Again, I explained my situation, how I thought I could get cash, but I ended up not able to get it, and that I could either give him cash tomorrow since I now knew where the bank was, or I would be willing to just let them charge my card to get the ordeal over with. The girl knew exactly what I was talking about and seemed to understand my situation, but the owner refused to budge.
“He says we will not accept your credit card. You must pay in cash or find some place else to sleep.” At this point the conversation had already dug 15 minutes into my window of computer and sleep time and I was getting agitated.
“I booked this hostel with my credit card. Yesterday you would accept my credit card. But now you say you will not accept my credit card?” At this point my physical exhaustion was beginning to take its toll on my attitude and patience.
“Yes, that is what he says.” she replied.
“Do you take credit cards?” I asked, in a raised voice.
No answer. I asked again.
“Do you take credit cards?” I asked, louder.
“Sir, we will not take your credit card.” the girl replied.
By this time I was yelling, and the people in the lobby using the computers were taking notice.
“This hostel accepts credit cards. Why will you not accept my credit card?”
The girl spoke again with the owner and turned to me apologetically, “He says that you said yesterday you would get cash, and now you do not have cash. He says you are not sincere.”
I emptied my wallet, laid 2000 RMB (equivalent of enough yen for over a weeklong stay) and 2 credit cards on the table. “Listen, I am not trying to rip you off. I have money. You have my credit card. If I were to leave without paying, you could just run up the bill on that card. I am not leaving this hostel tonight.”
“Yes, I understand your situation completely, but he is the owner, and I have no say. He says you need cash tonight,” she said.
I felt a little guilty about getting angry, especially with the girl who was just acting as a messenger. However, I also was not pleased with the way I was being treated, since with all the facts present, it was blatantly obvious that there was no way I could have stiffed the hostel, even if that had been my intention.
“OK, tell the owner he has 2 options. He can either charge my credit card right now, or I can give him cash tomorrow when I go back to the bank. I am not trying to cheat you, and I am not leaving this hostel.”
After conversing again with the owner, she replied, “You must pay in cash.” After running over the same arguments for another 10 minutes, and attracting more attention from the other guests in the lobby, the girl finally stepped in with a solution.
“The owner says he wants you to pay him with your Chinese money.”
“That’s no problem at all,” I said, knowing that my original reason for not paying with credit was that I had wanted to get rid of all my cash first. “I would love to get rid of this RMB, however, make sure to tell him that transferring it into yen might be a hassle for him. I plan on doing it anyway tomorrow and can give him yen then, but if he wants to make things more difficult on himself…”
“He says he wants you to pay him in your Chinese currency.”
I told her that was fine with me, and the owner picked up the phone and made a call.
“He is finding out a fair price now.” the girl said.
Using a calculator he typed out 450 as the rate he would charge me. I had already calculated the rate for the evening in RMB and it had come to 370. I pointed this out to the girl and when she told the owner she replied that he would be charging an extra fee for the conversion.
“You know what, I really don’t care.” I said. “As long as I don’t have to leave this building tonight, it’s fine with me.”
The conflict was now over, and as it neared 11 o’clock, I could finally sit down with my computer and veg out for an hour or two before crashing out and waking up again 7 hours later.
Two computers were set up in the lobby along with 2 additional LAN hookups for people who had their own computers. I had needed to make use of several files and applications from my laptop, not to mention the difficulty of using Japanese keyboards so my plan had been to hook up my laptop. I had tried this the previous evening, but the employee who had been working had noticed that my laptop charger needed an adapter to fit into a Japanese socket. I had spent an hour of my day (and 975 yen, approx $8 USD) buying the adapter so that I could use my own computer at the hostel.
The electrical outlets were all located behind a counter where only employees were allowed to go, but which were available for guests to use, so I asked the girl if she could help me plug my computer in. Hearing my voice, the owner came followed her to see what new crazy demands I was requesting. Seeing that I wanted to use my computer, he interrupted us and began speaking in Japanese to the girl. She turned to me.
“The owner says that if you want to use the computer it will cost you 1000 yen per hour to use.”
The owner looked at me, “Japan electricity very expensive.”
“That is ridiculous. Last night I wanted to plug in the my computer, and your employee told me it would be no problem. I even went out today and bought a special adapter, just so I could use my computer here for 2 nights. Furthermore, you advertise this hostel as having free computer access, and there are 3 people sitting right there using it for free.
Once again, the girl looked at me apologetically, “I know, and I agree with you, but there is nothing I can do. He is the owner.”
“I already spent 1000 yen of my own money just to buy the adapter. Had I known there was a 1000 yen charge per hour, I never would have bought the adapter. I already paid for my room in the hostel, and now I would like to take advantage of the services which were advertised as being included in the hostel stay.”
Again, I got the same response from the owner translated from the girl, “You must pay, 1000 yen per hour. It is a fair price.”
“You know what, fine, I don’t care. I just want to relax and get on the computer. Tell him I will pay him 1000 yen, but only for unlimited usage tonight, not 1000 yen per hour.”
Again, another conference.
“You cannot use the electricity. He says he does not like your attitude. You were not sincere with him the first time. Japanese people attach great importance to sincerity and honesty, and you were not honest.” I had effectively been banned from the Internet by the youth hostel.
“I was not lying to him…” I yelled at her before catching myself in my anger. As angry as I was, it really was no fault of the girl, and I felt bad about her getting caught in the middle. I apologized to her, told her I knew the situation was not her fault, and asked what she suggested.
“I trust you. I know you weren’t trying to cheat us, but the owner is just like that, and I can’t do anything about it. Why don’t you go upstairs to the 9th floor. There is a wireless network you can use there, and he will never know. I apologize for this situation.”
I thanked her again, and apologized for any of my tirade which was directed at her, and went upstairs. While there was an electrical outlet, the wireless network was temporarily out of service. I finally gave up, succumbing to the fact I had been banned from the Internet in Japan and shifted my strategy to trying to salvage enough sleep out of the night as possible.
By the time I got to sleep it was nearly 1 AM. As I lay in bed I went over the exchange in my mind again and again. Part of me was angry. I had only 3 days in Japan and was trying to maximize those days as much as possible. The last thing I needed was to waste an evening on such a fiasco, especially on the false pretense that I was trying to cheat the youth hostel. On the other hand I was a little disappointed in myself for getting so angry about it, and I am quite sure this had some influence on how the owner had responded.
Although my short temper and the ensuing tiff was in no doubt partially influenced by my state of impatience and exhaustion, it struck me as interesting that I have never found myself in this type of situation in China. Something felt odd, strange, different. Then it finally hit me. Throughout our argument, no effort was made on the owner’s part to save face, either his or my own. He had directly told me he suspected that I was cheating him, without giving either himself or me a way out which could have potentially prevented an altercation. He had then fought back with me by insisting that I pay to use the electricity on account of my “insincerity,” and then he had told me how much his people honored sincerity (in effect implying that mine did not). Had this same situation occurred in China, they probably would have found some obscure rule beyond their control which prevented them from accepting credit cards on Tuesdays after 10 pm when it isn’t raining, or conveniently discovered that the credit card reader was broken. As angry as they might have been, they would not have said “you are a liar, and I am going to make your life difficult because of it,” even if that was exactly what they were thinking.
I am not trying to say either way of dealing with matters is more appropriate, nor am I asserting that the way this man acted is at all representative of typical Japanese behavior. But I do believe, it does to some extent represent how two different cultures might deal with conflict. My own personal tendency to favor a more direct approach, but I can see how preserving face and skirting around direct attention to issues could serve to prevent an embarrassing situation in particular contexts. I tend to believe that the actions of the youth hostel owner are more attributed to the fact of him being an asshole than to him being a Japanese, but even those who violate typical some social norms, are still very much influenced by the typical behaviors of the society in which they live. But in the end, I am just glad to be back in America, a land where my Internet usage has still yet to be precluded by any governments or angry youth hostel operators. More on Japan (and China) in the days to come.
Yesterday I visited the Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine is where the Japanese honor their fallen war heroes. This has stirred up a great deal of controversy in China which regularly accuses Japan of “whitewashing” the history of World War II atrocities. Before I give my thoughts on the shrine, I want to let the shrine speak for itself. The following passages were taken verbatim from displays in the museum at the Yasukuni Shrine.
The China Incident
A Sino-Japanese relations is once stabilized with the conclusion of the Tanggu Cease-Fire Agreement in 1933. It deteriorates again, however, with the acceleration of the North China autonomy movement instigated by the local Japanese armies in North China and the revival of terrorism incited by the Chinese Communist Party’s anti-Japanese policy under the instruction of the Comitern.
The prevailing anti-Japanese atmosphere in China helps spread the small incident of Chinese shooting at the Japanese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge into a full-scale engagement covering all of North China. After the Second Shanghai Incident, which is again triggered by the Chinese side, Chiang Kai-shek resorts to the strategy of consuming Japanese forces in the vast battlefield covering the entire Chinese mainland. Chiang persists for eight years and succeeds in joining the ranks of victors.
The Marco Polo Bridge Incident
On July 7, 1937, while Japanese troops were conducting night maneuvers near the Marco Polo Bridge on the outskirts of Beiping (Beijing), shots were fired at them. Shots were also fired at the Japanese reinforcements who arrived the next morning. A battle was subsequently fought against the Chinese at Wanping. The Japanese government decided to prevent the hostilities from escalating and the local forces signed a truce with the Chinese on July 11.
The Nanking Campaign
The purpose of the Nanking Campaign was to surround and occupy the capital, this discouraging the Chinese from continuing their resistance against the Japanese. Garrison Commander Tang Shengzhi ignored the Japanese demand to surrender. He ordered his troops to defend Nanking to the death and then escaped. After the confused battles, Nanking fell on December 13.
The Wuhan Campaign
In a joint Army-Navy operation, the Japanese advanced up the Yangtze River and attacked the strategic conurbation of Wuhan (Hankou, Wuchang, and Hanyang). The Central China Expeditionary Army attacked Wuhan in October. A perfect care was taken to secure the safety of residents and historical and cultural monuments.
The China Incident Campaigns
The Marco Polo Bridge Incident on the night of July 7, 1937 led to further hostilities, and eventually all of North China became a battlefield. When the Second Shanghai Incident erupted in August 1937 and Chiang Kai-shek joined the Communists in fighting Japan, the Japanese government abandoned its efforts to prevent incidents from escalating. The result was a full-scale war between Japan and China. Chiang moved his capital to Chongqing to continue all-out resistance. The Japanese attacked the former capital Nanjing, Xuzhou, Wuhan, and then advanced to South China. Since neither side ever declared war against the other, the Japanese refer to these hostilities as the “China Incident.”
The World Situation on the Eve of World War II
On the eve of World War II, the nations of Europe were reluctant to halt Germany’s aggrandizement of its empire via military force by fighting another war. But German invasions of Poland convinced Great Britain and France that they had no other choice. Their declaration of war against Germany marked the beginning of World War II. When German troops invaded France, all of Europe became a battlefield, and Roosevelt was convinced that the US should enter the War. The USSR implemented an aggressive expansionist policy immediately after the partition of Poland, invading Finland, forcing Rumania to cede Bessarabia and Bukovina, and annexing Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. Soviet actions had repercussions in Asia as well, one of which was the prolongation of the China Incident.
Japan’s Quest for Avoiding a War
The United States helps the Chiang Kai-shek government to continue the war with massive assistance, which has adverse effects on US-Japan relations. To strengthen Japan’s negotiating position vis-à-vis the United States for the purpose of avoiding a war, the Konoe Cabinet decides to sign the Tripartite Pact which Foreign Minister Matsuoka Yosuke strongly promoted.
Japan’s Economic Situation
Once an underdeveloped nation, Japan made a concerted effort to adopt advanced technologies from the West, and was rewarded with a significant increase in productivity. Nevertheless, it continued to depend on other nations for those advanced technologies, including machine tools, and relied on imports for most raw materials. Japan was importing 90% of the oil and other energy sources needed to support economic activity. Seventy percent of those energy sources came from the US. Therefore, if the flow of imports from the US should cease, Japan’s survival hinged on locating a new supplier of resources.
note+ Please excuse the punctuation-spelling mistakes, and lack of form and proofreading in this post. I am on a Japanese keyboard, which for some reason has excess spaces in places Iºm not used to having spaces in, and the punctiation keys are all different as well. Its also 2 am and Iºm running on 2 hours of sleep which isnºt making things any easier…anyway…
Last night I had my final night in Fuzhou. I intened on having friends come by from 8 to 11 for a little goodbye, but it inevitably turned into a late night party, and I didnt get to sleep until 3 am. This was not the ideal plan, as my flight was leaving Fuzhou at 830 am.
3 hours later I awoke to Cheng Qing (from the barbershop) banging on my door. He had offered to help me carry my stuff, and fortunately I took him up on the offer because my alarm chose the worst possible night to malfunction. With the help of my friend Joyce (a regular commenter on this blog), we rushed all of my stuff into a taxi, and sped off to the Fuzhou airport.
All of the rush turned out to be for nothing, because my flight to Beijing on Air China was delayed from 830 to 1030 on account of “bad weather” (FYI it was perfectly clear and sunny all morning). My connecting flight from Beijing to Tokyo was set for 245, so assuming my flight wasnt any later than 1030, I would have just over an hour to make my international connection. This wasnºt my first negative experience with Air China, as the last time I flew to Beijing to meet my parents, I got to the airport 45 minutes before take off and was told my seat had already been given to somebody else. Apparently Air China does not believe in offering compensation to those who choose to get bumped. Instead, they just insist that the last passengers to arrive, regardless of how early they come, lose out. That time it had been me and 4 Chinese travelers who got the bad end of the deal. Needless to say, all 5 of us went apeshit.
So Air China managed to get me to Beijing just after one oºclock, leaving me about an hour and a half to get my bags, check in again, (I was on a different airline for my Tokyo flight), go through security, walk to the gate, and get on the plane in time. The Beijing Airport is notoriously slow for processing passengers, so I by the time I got my bags I figured I had a 40-60 chance of making my connection. With under an hour to go, I made it to security where a massive line of people was ahead of me. I asked for some assistance at the information desk, and was told there was no way I would make my flight. I scowered around the hall trying to get somebody to allow me to cut in line, on account of the fact the reason I was late was because my connecting flight had been delayed. (This was all being done while lugging around 2 oversize bags, a carry’on, a laptop computer, and a mandolin. As I was about to give up, and accept the fact I would be staying in Beijing for the night, I was approached by a man in a red uniform. “Need any help_” he asked in Chinese.
“Sure,” I replied, figuring I had nothing to lose. Before I could say anything more, the man ran to the front of the waving at me to follow him. I pushed the cart to the front, dodging bystanders, and in my paniced desperate state, yelling “rang yi xia” (out of my way) to those in the way. The man in red said less than a sentence to the people working the security gate, then waved again for me to cut in front of everybody and move to the front of the line. After I got through security, the man in red, jumped out in front of me and ran down the corridor, yelling at me to follow him. As he dodged people and suitcases, I couldnºt help wonder if this was just a regular Beijing Airport employee or the second coming of OJ Simpson.
I made it to the gate just as they were finishing boarding. With less than 72 hours to stay in Tokyo, I was relieved I wouldnºt have to waste 24 of them waiting in Beijing.
The flight to Tokyo was a quick 3 hours on ANA (a Japanese airline), and contained the most multifarious airplane meal I have ever experienced. My single trey contained rice with 2 different sprinkled toppings, 2 different kinds of noodles, a piece of fish, a slice of ham, tuna, dried raddishes and carrots, steamed peas, carrots, mushrooms, and 3 vegetable-fungi I couldnºt identify, lettuce, tomato, dried seaweed, noodle sauce, wasabi, and a kit kat bar. It also came with a fork, knife, spoon, and chopsticks. Note to self…so far Japan good.
After an hour and a half train ride, and checking in at my youth hostel, it was a little past 10 pm and I decided to get my first taste of Tokyo.
Before I go any further, I should add a disclaimer or two. One of the most valuable lessons I learned from 3 plus years in China, is that it is quite difficult to begin to “understand” a new place without living there for at least a few months. When I look back about my thoughts on China during my first month there, many of them turned out to be gross misconceptions which I found to be untrue after spending more time in the country. That being said, I am still hoping these 72 hours will give me some insight into the country that the Chinese love to hate.
The other thing I should mention is that with only 2.5 days, I will be spending all my time in Tokyo. So all of my observations on Japan will really be observations on Tokyo. Using China as a comparison, spending 3 days in Shanghai (essentially Chinaºs Tokyo) would give quite a limited scope on average Chinese life. All that put behind us, here are some random observations Iºve had on Tokyo so far.
1) This city is clean, damn clean. Maybe thatºs because I am coming from Fuzhou, but just the looking down at your feet when walking on the streets, you can feel how much cleaner Tokyo is than the average Chinese city.
2) I am quite intrigued by the fashions here. Tokyoers are quite up on fashion, and there seem to be many different sub«fashions and trends going on here.
3) I went out for sushi tonight at a small sushi bar. The sushi was excellent, but pretty similar to the sushi I had eaten in the US and Fuzhou, which is also excellent. Then again, I am by no means a conniseur of Japanese food…I just love eating raw fish. The best thing about the sushi bar was that in addition to a no smoking sign on the door they also had a big no cell phone sign. This is something China needs desperately.
4) I only speak about 4 words of Japanese, but I am finding I can make sense out of most written Japanese on account of the kanji being so similar to Chinese. Predominantly I am relying on body language though.
5) I am finding that Jinglish (has anybody coined this term yet_) is an entirely different animal than Chinglish. Most of the English signs I have seen around are quite accurate, but some of the brand names and store signs have been quite amusing. My favorite was a bar called UCLA.
Thatºs it for now. My plan for tomorrow is to see the Yakasuni Shrine (the Japanese world war 2 memorial which has caused quite a bit of controversy in China), as well as visit Harajuku (where Iºm told all the trendy teenagers hang out). I am going to try to catch a baseball game at the Tokyo Dome too. Unfortunately, the sumo season is over, but seeing baseball should be interesting as well. Iºll try to keep posting regularly for the next few days…..so for now sayonara!
continued in Midwesterner in the Sun Kingdom (Part 2)
Last night I came back from a night at the bars with my roommate. As we walked up to our apartment, I swore I smelt something awful. Weird stenches are not that uncommon in a country with an overly dense population and somewhat lax sanitation standards.
|I have seen some pretty foul happenings in 3 years in China, but none has hit home like this bomb dropped 10 feet from my doorstep last night.
This morning when I left my apartment to go to record my TV show, my worst fears were confirmed. Some person had had a severe episode of la duzi just outside my door. The craziest part of it is that I live on the 4th floor, so whoever the culprit was had to climb up 4 flights of stairs before relieving themselves. With the way things work here in my apartment complex, the mess should get cleaned up some time this week. I’m still keeping my fingers crossed. This may be the sign that it’s truly time to leave China.
Life is all about decisions and coming to China was possibly the most influential decision I have ever made in my life.
After I graduated college, I was ready for a new mind-expanding experience. Unlike most of my peers, I had not spent a semester or year abroad, but felt that living abroad was an experience everyone should endure if possible. The main reason I wanted to go abroad was to experience life in a completely different culture, different customs, different food, and different language. With this in mind, I focused my plans on developing countries. With 5 years of French under my belt, I scowered the Internet for English teaching jobs in Francophone Africa. The search was to no avail, but through some stroke of luck I saw an advertisement to teach English in China in a local newspaper.
Growing up I had little interest in China. I knew no Chinese. I was not interested in martial arts. I had no close Chinese friends or acquaintances. The closest I had ever been to China was the $5.99 all-you-can-eat King Buffet in Lawrence, KS. But somehow going to China just felt right, and I knew going would be a decision I would not regret.
When I first came to China, I signed a 5 month contract. I figured I would sign on for a semester, and then if I really liked it, do a whole year, travel to Tibet in the summer, and then go back home. That was back in spring of 2004. Like most of us who come to China for 5 months but stay for 3 years, China became grew to become an inseparable part of my life.
As much as I enjoy my life in China, I have never wanted to make China my full time home. However, the longer I stay here, the more it feels as such. This has also in many ways left me somewhat alienated from my life back in the United States. 3 years of missing close friend’s weddings, losing touch with family, and finding your personal style pathetically behind the times takes its toll on the individual.
Next week I will be flying back to Kansas City. My ticket is one way, and though I am currently entertaining several options to come back to China, I will also strongly be considering focusing my job search in the United States, likely in Chicago. The decision to go back was based on many factors, and I have been thinking about it for several months. I am not one for drawn-out goodbyes, so I didn’t start mentioning it (outside of close friends) until the past week or two, so that I could try to live out my last month in China as normal as possible.
Coming to China was a decision I made on a whim, and turned out to be one of the most positive decisions in my life. The longer I am here, the more difficult it becomes to leave my Chinese life and return to my American one. I have been spending the past year planning for the right time to go back home and finally came to the realization there never will be the perfect time. There will always be more Chinese to study, more traveling to do, more food to eat, more friends to make, more TV programs to appear on, and more unique experiences which would be unattainable in my home country.
I plan to keep this blog going while I am in the US, but as to which direction, it is still too early to tell. I have a large backlog of articles which I have not posted yet, and I’m also anticipating reentry to be an experience itself. Also of note, I will be spending 2.5 days in Japan on my way back to the US.
To everyone who has kept up with this blog, thanks for your support. This is by no means the end, just a new chapter.
After almost a month as the co-host of “I Love Health” I am beginning to understand a thing or two about Chinese TV. The major observation I often hear about Chinese TV (from Chinese and foreigners alike) is that it is full of low quality programming. I now have several Chinese close friends with good English who frequently download American TV shows from the Internet. They all have all unequivocally told me that the American shows are superior to Chinese ones, and say that when given the choice, they would never watch a Chinese TV program over an American one too. Based on my own personal limited exposure to Chinese television (and TV as a whole), I would have to say I agree with this assertion.
There are several theories why Chinese TV is so…how can I put this nicely?…crappy. One is that the Chinese education does not emphasize creativity and arts as much as that of the West, and this is reflected by the film and television industry. While there is truth to this statement, I think it only represents a piece of the puzzle. Another factor is the relative youth of the Chinese TV/film industry. While the industry itself is not that young, it must be put into perspective that only three decades ago, the only TV and films permitted were those glorifying the Communist Party.
But another reason I am finding for the severe lack of quality programming in China is massive dilution of the talent pool. Much of this is because the Chinese media is still runs essentially like a 单位 (danwei), the old work units which were the building blocks of Socialism. While private enterprise is rapidly rendering the concept of a danwei job obsolete, government offices, schools, public hospitals, and the media all still operate under the old danwei system. What this means is endless levels of hierarchy, webs of bureaucracy, and at the very top cadres with leather day planners who don’t seem to do any actual work, but somehow have the highest salaries and the personal drivers.
Chinese TV operates under this system. Chinese TV has 3 levels: Central Television (CCTV) which is based out of Beijing, provincial television, and city television. CCTV is available all over China. Provincial channels are usually available regionally (i.e. Fujian Provincial TV in most Southeastern provinces, as well as most major cities), and local channels are typically only available in the cities they are broadcast from.
Unlike the US however, where local stations are typically only responsible for local news, in China local stations are often responsible for their own programming. Because of this, production, directing, and acting talent are all spread around the country, rather than being focused on several major TV networks, and then syndicated across the country. Consider my show as an example. My co-host, Zheng Zheng, is only one year out of college. She is attractive, speaks perfect Mandarin, and does a decent job reporting news with me on “I Love Health.” However, she is probably one of several thousand, and would not stand a chance compared to the announcers on CCTV. Then there is Ting Ting who writes and directs all of our material. Ting Ting does an excellent job preparing the material, and coaching Zheng Zheng and my performance. However, she just graduated college this spring…with an advertising degree…and she is the writer for a TV show. I know friends in the US who studied screen writing 4 years in college, waited tables in Hollywood another 4, and still never got their chance to write anything. Then of course there is me. Granted I speak Chinese, but so do several tens of thousands of other foreigners in China. I think I do a moderately decent job overall as an announcer, but there is no chance I would be on TV if shows if they were all centralized, even accounting for the fact I am a Westerner.
When you consider how dispersed the talent is over China, it starts to become clear why programming is so sub-par. The last two shows I was a contestant on, SuperMe and Superstar were both ripoffs of the famous Hunan TV show Super Girls, which is the famous Chinese clone of American Idol. They were both were produced by Fujian provincial TV, yet had no local connection to Fujian. Instead, they were just another one of the several hundred American Idol ripoffs currently in production in China. I can’t help but posit that if TV were centralized, and they rounded up all of the best talent from the hundreds of stations across the country, held try-outs, and began production with a top-notch staff, the quality would vastly improve. Instead, what we are stuck with are hundreds of small local TV stations, all producing their own redundant clones of the same TV shows.
Personally, I sense that a big reason TV centralization has yet to occur is because it would necessitate a restructuring of the system. This would require firing a great deal of the TV deadweight (cadres) as well as trimming down the personnel to only the best the country has to offer. This would not bode well with most of the people who would have the power to bring about such a change, and also would stand to cause considerable “instability,” the ultimate pet peeve of the CCP. Until this happens, we are probably stuck with the same stagnant programming.
My new site www.howtoorderchinesefood.com has now been up for almost a month, and has been undergoing major updates since I first mentioned it in this blog. Since all of the pictures on the site are taken by me, of food that I personally consume, the updates have been slow but frequent, but now there are 83 different dishes listed, plus listings for various vegetables, fruits, and condiments. I also now have new sections on Chinese breakfast and seafood. Additionally many of the descriptions have been updated to be more insightful and less monotonous than they originally were when the site was first launched. In the future, I plan to add downloadable PDFs and hopefully a forum to discuss, what else but Chinese food. If anybody has any corrections or suggestions, please feel free to leave them here. In the meantime, check out the site, and be sure to recommend it to anybody on their way to China.
Several weeks ago I began taping for my new TV show with Fuzhou City TV. Before the actual show was to begin, there was the obligatory round of meetings and dinners with the producer. The producer is a Chinese guy named Jason, and he told me that he had wanted to put together a new TV show, and it was going to be called 我爱健康 or “I Love Health.” It was to be a 30 minute show broken down into 5 or 6 segments. I was to be the host of one segment which was called 我爱健康之健康冲浪 (I Love Health’s Health Surfing). The segment was to follow a format where I would pick out news from the Internet and then report it on TV. Jason’s idea was to have a foreigner host to give the show a little edge over the competition.
“This will be like a news show. If it goes well, hopefully we will do some ‘on the spot’ recording, where you might go to…say…a skin care center, get some service and then report live as you are getting it.”
Several days before the show was to begin, Jason gave me a call with some new information.
“We have been informed by the leaders of the TV station that they think it is best to have a Chinese host with you on the show.”
“That’s okay. Why?” I responded. It wasn’t that I minded sharing the program with another announcer, but more than anything was just curious why a decision like that had been made.
“I’m not really sure. You know how leaders are. Maybe they just weren’t ready to have a show completely hosted by a foreigner.”
Fortunately, having another host turned out making the show considerably more interesting as it allowed for dialogue and mutual joking between me and the other host, a young female announcer named Zheng Zheng who was also doing her first full-time TV program.
|Zheng Zheng (wearing yellow this time) and Ben, Fuzhou’s latest and greatest TV duo.
On the first day of recording, Zheng Zheng, myself, and the production crew which at that point was at its peak of 5 people met for the first time. Our first meeting took place in a local coffee shop which was to be the background of the show. On this, my first meeting of my co-host, Zheng Zheng, showed up accurately depicted as “dressed up like a strawberry” by one of the cameramen. She was wearing a solid pink dress, pink earrings, a pink headband, and several layers of makeup. This of course was to be expected, as in China the archetypical male/female host duo consists of a girl who looks like a Barbie doll, and a guy with cheesy Chinese hipster button-down shirts and a goofy spiky haircut. Needless to say, I fit the male role to the tee.
All of the scripts are prepared by a girl named Ting Ting, who sends them to both Zheng Zheng and me a few days before the recording. She also directs us as we report. Each 5 minute segment is broken into 3 or 4 short dialogues. They all follow the same general pattern: Zheng Zheng or I begin by asking the other a random question. We then engage in a few sentences before Zheng Zheng relates an element from our dialogue into a news story from the Internet. I make comments or ask a question. Then Zheng Zheng replies. Usually at several points running jokes are included such as me telling Zheng Zheng that she has gotten fat or asking if she is pregnant. Zheng Zheng also takes her turn making fun of my beer gut or calling me old.
Here’s how one of our bits on fibromyalgia digressed.
me: Zheng Zheng, have you ever heard of fibromylgia?
Zheng Zheng: Don’t ask me. Ask an expert student from Shanghai Medical University.
me: I already asked him. He says he doesn’t know. (at this point I give a big “thumbs down” gesture)
me: (on the phone) Is this the hospital rheumatism department?
Zheng Zheng: Oh, in the past, what happened to these people with this disease? (sighs, indicating results not wanting to be talked about)
Ben: That’s right. However last month the American FDA authorized a new drug called lyrica from the Huirui company. It works very well against fibromyalgia. You know Hurui company, right? They were the same company who developed Viagra.
Ben: (in a sly aside to the audience) Listen everybody. Who wants it? Just give me a quick call on my cell phone. I can get you some from the US. Just give me a little fee for my troubles.
This was about as far as we pushed the envelope on the first day. More to come…
About a month ago I received a call from Xiao Xie in the barbershop.
“There is a customer who wants to meet you.” These kinds of calls happen a couple times a week. Usually the customer is either looking for a quick fix to their child’s poor English, or a green card to the US. Naturally, I am the one called in both situations.
This call was different. It was from one of the Fuzhou city television station (not the provincial ones I had appeared on before).
“I am a producer for Fuzhou TV. We are looking for a foreigner to be a broadcaster for a show about health, and it is in Chinese,” the man told me in English. “We would like to meet sometime and do a practice scene. Are you interested?”
I met with the producer the following day, and what came out of the meeting is that I was going be the newest host on Fuzhou TV.
This was almost a month ago, but for various reasons I didn’t get a chance to document it on this blog yet. Working for the TV station has been an interesting experience, and has given me some insight into how TV production works in China. I plan to retroactively blog about it for at least the next week or so. If anybody is interested in watching the show, you can see it on Fuzhou TV3 at 6:25 every day. It’s probably only available within Fujian province. I’d be curious if anybody in other provinces can pick up the channel as well.
When Chinese people hear I come from a family with three sons, they are often somewhat envious. When they find out my younger brothers are identical twins, the envy grows even more. In a country where child birth is limited by the Family Planning Policy, having twins is the equivalent of winning the national jackpot. For many families, having a second child can lead to heavy fines and possibly the loss of employment (in the case of government workers). The birth of twins is the legal way to beat the system, and does not bring with it any penalties.
Twins in China are easy to spot because they are invariably dressed alike by their parents. In the US, this also occurs, but if far less common. When my brothers and I were growing up, my parents would often buy similar outfits for my them, but would always make sure to get them in different colors or different patterns, so that they were never dressed exactly alike. The idea was that dressing them alike would discourage others from treating them as individuals and also create tension as they fought to distinguish themselves from one another.
|In China, identical twins are often regarded as “exactly the same” and dressed accordingly.
Last week, I spent 2 days in Wuyi Shan with my friend Frank visiting his friend Jiu Jie. Jiu Jie is a woman in her early forties who has twin daughters (pictured, right) who are 10 years old. Every time we saw them, they were dressed in identical white dresses with black dots.
While she was schlepping Frank and I around town in her Volvo, I brought up the topic dressing identical twins alike with Jiu Jie.
“I noticed that most identical twins in China are dressed the same.” I mentioned to her.
“Yes, that’s right. Is it not that way in the United States?” she replied.
“Sometimes it is, but usually they are dressed differently,” I told her, and then explained the reasons listed above, using my brothers as examples.
“In China, we think identical twins are exactly the same. Since they are exactly the same then they should also be dressed exactly the same. Right? Once they grow up, maybe around high school, they can start choosing their own clothes, and if they want to dress differently, then they can do so.”
Although I was not surprised at her response, hearing a parent say that her two children were “exactly the same” did not sit well in my stomach. However, child rearing is a subjective art, and is bound to vary across cultures. Examples such as these often make me wonder to what degree theories of psychology and parenting are dependent upon the societies from which they develop. Is it possible to create universal theories of child psychology? Are there any ‘rules’ which are consistent across all cultures. I would posit that dressing twins alike in the West would be detrimental to their development in a society which stresses individualism. Yet in China, where individuality is not as stressed, I’m not 100% convinced that dressing twins alike would have all of the same negative effects.