It’s Christmas in Chicago…and Fuzhou!

Posted in Culture Clash, Down in Chinatown, Fujian at 7:21 pm by Benjamin Ross

Now is the time of year when the snow if falling, houses are decorated with holly and Christmas lights, and the radio waves are filled with Christmas music. Christmas is in the air in Chicago. In Fuzhou, a modestly-sized Chinese capital city with a tiny foreigner population, Christmas is in the air as well…well, everything except for the snow.

trust mart employees santa hats
Several Santa Clauses greet customers outside a Fuzhou storefront

Christmas in Fuzhou is no longer a foreign festival that children read about in social studies books—it’s a local phenomenon as well. If Fuzhou, a 40 foot Christmas tree is erected every year in front of the (or I should say “one of the 3?”) KFCs in Dong Jie Kou, Fuzhou’s central shopping district. Storefronts are lined with holly, and novelty snow, and shoppers as well as store employees can be seen wearing red Santa hats. It’s now not uncommon for Fuzhou residents nowadays to purchase Christmas cards and Christmas gifts, and sign their e-mails and QQ greetings with “Merry Christmas.”

For me, Christmas in China was always an awkward time. As a Jew, I have never celebrated Christmas, and this came as quite a disappointment to many of my Chinese friends. Even when I would explain that the reason I do not celebrate Christmas is that I am not a Christian, this would do little to answer the curiosity. The general perception of Christmas in China is that it is a Western holiday, and not necessarily connected with religion. Based on the commercialization of Christmas in the US, it’s not surprising that many Chinese have drawn this conclusion.

trust mart employees santa hats
Trust Mart employees sport their special Christmas uniforms.

The boom in Chinese Christmas celebration has coincided with the seemingly diminishing relevance of the Chinese Spring Festival. While Spring Festival is still the most prominent holiday on the Chinese calendar, it’s significance has been slowly diminishing, especially in the cities. Not so surprisingly, it is also in the cities where Christmas celebration is most common, especially among China’s youth. Will there come a day when the Spring Festival is supplanted by Christmas? My guess is probably not anytime soon. But with the speed of globalization, who knows what it will be like in another 100 years?



My 28(29)th birthday

Posted in Culture Clash at 1:45 am by Benjamin Ross

Today is my 28th birthday. However, in China I’m 29. How is this possible? I asked the same question during my first Chinese birthday. In China there are two ways to count age, one is 周岁 (zhou1 sui4) and the other is 属岁 (shu3 sui4). 周岁are years as counted in the West…I was born on December 18, 1979, so on December 18, 1980 I turned 1. According to 属岁 I turned 2 on December 18, 1980, as I had already turned 1 that snowy morning in 1979 when I popped out of my mother.

What’s the logic behind this? When I’ve asked Chinese friends, the response I usually get is that since you were already in your mother for almost a year, then when you’re born you should already be a year old. In other words, the Chinese believe that life begins at conception, however you wouldn’t know it based on their views on abortion. Apparently they also believe in rounding numbers, as most normal, healthy, human pregnancies tend not to reach the 1 year mark.

So in China everybody has 2 ages. The 周岁 are used for official and legal purposes, for example, whether or not you are old enough to get into an Internet bar (the age limit is 18 周岁), but for just about everything else, people use 属岁. 9 times out of 10 when you ask a Chinese person their age, you will get an answer in 属岁.

So this seems easy enough…your Western age plus one equals your Chinese birthday. If only things were this simple. With the upcoming Chinese New Year, I will likely get messages from Chinese friends congratulating me on reaching 30. How can this be? This is where the logic gets a little fuzzy, and I would appreciate some further clarification. As has been explained to me, since the ancient Chinese used the lunar calendar, everybody has a Chinese birthday as well. Somehow, however, we all gain a year every time there is a new Chinese New Year. This raises two questions. Firstly, why does everybody’s age increase on New Years as opposed to their bona fide Chinese birthday. Secondly, if there are two points during a year when my age increases, shouldn’t I be turning 55 today instead of 28?

After much frustration trying to understand the inner mathematics of Chinese birthday counting, I finally came to a conclusion. If you want to know how old a Chinese person is, don’t ask them their age. Avoid all the confusion and simply ask them what year they were born. You can do the math yourself.



Guest Blogger: John Steinbeck

Posted in Culture Clash at 5:56 am by Benjamin Ross

My return to the United States has been infusing upon me some introspection into the parallels between the perceptions of foreigners in China and those of foreigners in the USA. The longer I am back home, the more analogies I am able to draw between current Chinese society and that of the US at the dawn of the 20th Century, especially in regards to the perception of outsiders. Being that I was only born in 1979, it’s difficult for me to give an accurate description of what life was like in the US a century ago. So with that in mind, I’m going to yield my blog to American author John Steinbeck.

This excerpt is from East of Eden, published in 1952. It takes place in the Salinas Valley of California in the early 20th Century, and tells the story of the descendents of two men who both migrate out west—Samuel Hamilton who comes from Ireland, and Adam Trask who comes from Connecticut. The following dialogue occurs between Samuel and Adam’s Chinese servant, Lee, as they ride together to the Trask Ranch.

“What’s your name?” Samuel asked pleasantly.

“Lee. Got more name. Lee papa family name. Call Lee.”

“I’ve read quite a lot about China. You born in China?”

“No. Born here.”

Samuel was silent for quite a long time while the buggy lurched down the wheel track toward the dusty valley. “Lee,” he said at last, “I mean no disrespect, but I’ve never been able to figure why you people still talk pidgin when an illiterate baboon from the black bogs of Ireland, with a head full of Gaelic and a tongue like a potato, learns to talk a poor grade of English in ten years.”

Lee grinned. “Me talkee Chinese talk,” he said.

“Well, I guess you have your reasons. And it’s not my affair. I hoe you’ll forgive me if I don’t believe it, Lee.”

Lee looked at him and the brown eyes under their rounded upper lids seemed to open and deepen until they weren’t foreign any more, but man’s eyes, warm with understanding. Lee chuckled. “It’s more than a convenience,” he said. “It’s even more than self-protection. Mostly we have to use it to be understood at all.”

Samuel showed no sign of having observed any change. “I can understand the first two,” he said thoughtfully, “but the third escapes me.”

Lee said, “I know it’s hard to believe, but it has happened so often to me and to my friends that we take it for granted. If I should go up to a lady or a gentleman, for instance, and speak as I am doing now, I wouldn’t be understood.”

“Why not?”

“Pidgin they expect, and pidgin they’ll listen to. But English from me they don’t listen to, and so they don’t understand it.”

“Can that be possible? How do I understand you?”

“That’s why I’m talking to you. You are one of the rare people who can separate your observation from your preconception. You see what is, where most people see what they expect.”

“I hadn’t thought of it. And I’ve not been so tested as you, but what you say has a candle of truth. You know, I’m very glad to talk to you. I’ve wanted to ask so many questions.”

“Happy to oblige.”

“So many questions. For instance, you wear the queue. I’ve read that it is a badge of slavery imposed by conquest by the Manchus on the Southern Chinese.”

“That is true.”

“Then why in the name of God do you wear it here, where the Manchus can’t get at you?”

“Talkee Chinese talk. Queue Chinese fashion—you savvy?”

Samuel laughed loudly. “That does have the green touch of convenience,” he said. “I wish I had a hidey-hole like that.”

“I’m wondering whether I can explain,” said Lee. “Where there is no likeness of experience it’s very difficult. I understand you were not born in America.”

“No, in Ireland.”

“And in a few years you can almost disappear; while I, who was born in Grass Valley, went to school and several years to the University of California, have no chance of mixing.”

“If you cut your queue, dressed and talked like other people?”

“No. I tried it. To the so-called whites I was still a Chinese, but an untrustworthy one; and at the same time my Chinese friends steered clear of me. I had to give it up.”

Le pulled up under a tree, got out and unfastened the check rein. “Time for lunch,” he said. “I made a package. Would you like some?”

“Sure I would. Let me get down in the shade there. I forget to eat sometimes and that’s strange because I’m always hungry. I’m interested in what you say. It has a sweet sound of authority. Now it peeks into my mind that you should go back to China.”

Lee smiled satirically at him. “In a few minutes I don’t think you’ll find a loose bar I’ve missed in a lifetime of search. I did go back to China. My father was a fairly successful man. It didn’t work. They said I looked like a foreign devil; they said I spoke like a foreign devil. I made mistakes in manners, and I didn’t know delicacies that had grown up since my father left. They wouldn’t have me. You can believe it or not—I’m less foreign here than I was in China.”

“I’ll have to believe you because it’s reasonable. You’ve given me things to think about until at least February twenty-seventh. Do you mind my questions?”

“As a matter of fact, no. The trouble with pidgin is that you get to thinking in pidgin. I write a great deal to keep my English up. Hearing and reading aren’t the same as speaking and writing.”

“Don’t you ever make a mistake? I mean, break into English?”

“No, I don’t. I think it’s a matter of what is expected. You look at a man’s eyes, you see that he expects pidgin and a shuffle, so you speak pidgin and a shuffle.”

“I guess that’s right,” said Samuel. “In my own way I tell jokes because people come all the way to my place to laugh. I try to be funny for them even when the sadness is on me.”

“But the Irish are said to be a happy people, full of jokes.”

“There’s your pidgin and your queue. They’re not. They’re a dark people with a gift for suffering way past their deserving. It’s said that without whisky to soak and soften the world, they’d kill themselves. But they tell jokes because it’s expected of them.”

Lee unwrapped a little bottle. “Would you like some of this? Chinee drink ng-ka-py.”

“What is it?”

“Chinee blandy. Stlong dlink—as a matter of fact it’s a brandy with a dosage of wormwood. Very powerful. It softens the world.”

Samuel sipped from the bottle. “Tastes a little like rotten apples,” he said.

“Yes, but nice rotten apples. Taste it back along your tongue toward the roots.”

Samuel took a big swallow and tilted his head back. “I see what you mean. That is good.”

“Here are some sandwiches, pickles, cheese, a can of buttermilk.”

“You do well.”

“Yes, I see to it.”

Samuel bit into a sandwich. “I was shuffling over half a hundred questions. What you said brings the brightest one up. You don’t mind?”

“Not at all. The only thing I do want to ask of you is not to talk this way when other people are listening. It would only confuse them and they wouldn’t believe it anyway.”

“I’ll try,” said Samuel. “If I slip, just remember that I’m a comical genius. It’s hard to split a man down the middle and always to reach for the same half.”

“I think I can guess what your next question is.”


“Why am I content to be a servant?”

“How in the world did you know?”

“It seemed to follow.”

“Do you resent the question?”

“Not from you. There are no ugly question except those clothed in condescension. I don’t know where being a servant came into disrepute. It is the refuge of a philosopher, the food of the lazy, and properly carried out, it is a position of power, even of love. I can’t understand why more intelligent people don’t take it as a career—learn to do it well and reap its benefits. A good servant has absolute security, not because of his master’s kindness, but because of habit and indolence. It’s a hard thing for a man to change spices or lay out his own socks. He’ll keep a bad servant rather than change. But a good servant, and I am an excellent one, can completely control his master, tell him what to think, how to act, whom to marry, when to divorce, reduce him to terror as a discipline, or distribute happiness to him, and finally be mentioned in his will. If I had wished I could have robbed, stripped, and beaten anyone I’ve worked for and come away with thanks. Finally, in my circumstances I am unprotected. My master will defend me, protect me. You have to work and worry. I work less and worry less. And I am a good servant. A bad one does no work and does no worrying, and he still is fed, clothed, and protected. I don’t know any profession where the field is so cluttered with incompetents and where excellence is so rare.”

Samuel leaned toward him, listening intently.

Lee went on, “It’s going to be a relief after that to go back to pidgin.”

“It’s a very short distance to (your) place. Why did we stop so near?” Samuel asked.

“Allee time talkee. Me Chinee number one boy. You leddy go now?”

“What? Oh, sure. But it must be a lonely life.”

“That’s the only fault with it,” said Lee. “I’ve been thinking of going to San Francisco and starting a little business.”

“Like a laundry? Or a grocery store?”

“No. Too many Chinese laundries and restaurants. I thought perhaps a bookstore. I’d like that, and the competition wouldn’t be too great. I probably won’t do it though. A servant loses his initiative.”

To me what sticks out the most from this passage is the perceptions we, as humans create about those of us who are different, especially outwardly different. We subconsciously create visions of what those people should look like, how they should act, and even how they should talk. I think the most integral component of this is physical appearance, as Lee points out. Even though he was born in America, can speak perfect English, and is well-educated, Lee is superseded by the fact that, he, from an outward perception, is a Chinese, and thus he should act like a Chinese. This draws quite the foil to Samuel, who by all accounts is less American than Lee, but because of his skin tone, is able to integrate into mainstream American society.

These preconceptions become diffused over time, mainly through exposure, as is already happening in major Chinese urban centers, due to the growing population of Westerners. But what Steinbeck posthumously reminds us of is that much of what we see in China today in regards to preconceptions of foreigners isn’t much different from what was happening during an earlier period of American history. For any Westerner who has lived in China, it’s not uncommon to recount situations where your feelings and experiences were similar to those of our old friend Lee. We are expected sing, dance, eat hamburgers, “act crazy,” or have any of the multitude of traits which are expected of Westerners. If you don’t believe me, you probably haven’t been watching enough Chinese TV.

Personally, I know I have at times felt as Lee does, that I am trapped into being an American, and no matter how long I would have stayed in China, my identity would have still been constricted into the confines of Chinese peoples’ preconceptions. Rather than fight it, sometimes you just go through the motions as Lee does, and keep your eyes open for opportunities when your personality can penetrate through the wall of stereotypes. In the meantime I can only imagine how hilarious our pidgin Chinese must sound to those on the other side of the spectrum.



Reverse Culture Shock

Posted in Culture Clash at 5:59 am by Benjamin Ross

In the movie Pulp Fiction, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) explains to his partner (Samuel L. Jackson) about his recent trip to Amsterdam. He breaks it down like this.

“They got the same shit over there they got over here, it’s just there it’s a little different.”

After living in China for 3.5 years, and now having been back in the US for 3.5 months, I would have to concur with Mr. Vega on his simplistic assessment of life abroad. While there are some major disparities between life in the US and life in China, it’s the little differences which really strike a chord. With that in mind here are some random observations about myself and my native country which I have noticed during my bout with repatriation.

-American public restrooms which at one time I would have considered below human standard, now don’t seem so intimidating.

-Learning the Chinese language was a formidable, yet attainable task, however utilizing the multiple remote controls now necessary to operate an American television set has proven to be far beyond my intellectual capacity

-I have become a habitual jaywalker.

-I suffer from inexplicable, random cravings for rice.

-Sometimes while waiting to board the subway, I find myself guarding my place in line, so as to prevent others from jumping in front of me and stealing my place. I have even caught myself a couple times trying to sneak into the train before all of the exiting passengers have gotten off.

-I cross streets one lane at a time.

-Friends and family have had to reminded me a time or two that spitting food out directly onto the table is not proper etiquette at an American dinner.

-Before I left for China, I would eat American Chinese food at least once a week. Now I can’t touch the stuff without feeling as if my entire gastrointestinal track is about to implode…Damn you General Tso!

-I now wear far more winter clothes than actually necessary, as after 3 years of baking in the Fuzhou heat, my body is not yet acclimatized to the Chicago winter.

-Planning anything more than a few days in advance has taken some getting used to. In China I would rarely plan anything more than a week in advance, and even if planned, dates would frequently change. Now I am finding myself already having to plan into January.

-I am no longer embarrassed to sing in public.

-On the basketball court, my blocked shot and offensive rebound totals have dropped off considerably.

-I have gone from smoking 2-3 cigarettes per day to 2-3 cigarettes per month.

-The ground is absolutely disgusting! Well not really, but living in China has socialized me into believing (and rightly so) that the ground anywhere outside my own home is filthy and infested. I still refuse to put my backpack or any other personal items on the floor anywhere, and the thought of wearing shoes inside still makes me slightly uncomfortable.

-Often it’s difficult to fully gauge the different nuances of life abroad until one returns to their own country. While the major cultural differences (i.e. different language, eating with chop sticks, etc.) tend to stick out at first, it’s often the little differences which are the most poignant. If Vincent Vega were with me today I’d probably tell him I agree wholeheartedly with his view of life abroad. I might also tell him that a Big Mac in China is called a “Ju Wu Ba,” and I have no idea what they call a Whopper because I didn’t go into a Burger King.

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