02.28.09

China and Mitch Hedberg…It’s Gotta be the Face.

Posted in Culture Clash, Society at 8:28 am by Benjamin Ross

The late, great comedian/philosopher Mitch Hedberg once quipped:

An escalator can never break:  It can only become stairs. You would never see an “Escalator Temporarily Out Of Order” sign, just “Escalator Temporarily Stairs.” Sorry for the convenience.

chinese escalator stairs
An immobile Chinese escalator…aka stairs.

The funny thing is that in China most escalators are in fact…stairs.  However, this is not necessarily because poor construction causes them to break down frequently.  Rather it’s due to the Chinese tendency to err on the side over overbearing fiscal responsibility when it comes to electricity.

Yesterday, as I was passing an immobile escalator in a Shanghai suburb, I made a comment about the escalator/stairs to my Chinese assistant.  Her immediate reply was “Duh, the elevators are built for face.”

Without being overly ethnocentric, it’s difficult to asses the use of funds to finance a value (face) which is virtually valueless in one’s own culture.  However, one has to wonder at what point spending money on face is deemed less important than spending on projects of a more functional value, such as say…electric devices which will actually be turned on from time to time.

For more insight from 老Mitch click here.


 

07.24.08

Welcome to Dog Meat Street 狗肉街欢迎您!!!

Posted in Culture Clash, Food and Drink, Travel Log (Asia) at 2:56 pm by Benjamin Ross

“So tell me, do they really eat dog in China?”

I probably get asked this question at least once a week when I am back in the United States. To shed some light on this inquiry, here’s a short anecdote from my recent trip to the town of Yanji (延吉) in Northeastern China’s Jilin province. Yanji is located just 15 miles away from the North Korean border, and home to much of China’s ethnic Korean population. In addition to being known for its Korean-infused “cold noodles,” (冷面 leng3 mian4) Yanji is also the renowned dog eating capital of China. So much so that they even have a street called Dog Meat Street (狗肉街 gou3 rou4 jie1), where restaurants specialize in serving dog meat in various incarnations, such as dog soup, dog hot pot, or simply chopped up, stir-fried dog with veggies.

Being that I had come all the way from Beijing, and was now in arguably the most famous dog eating spot in the world, I had to give it a try. Along with two Chinese backpackers I had met along the way we found quaint, little, restaurant on Dog Meat Street which specialized in serving dog hot pot (狗肉火锅 gou3 rou4 huo3 guo1) and decided to give it a whirl.

A hot pot is a vat of boiling water, which usually sits in a circular hole in a table, constructed specifically for its purpose. A spicy base, and sometimes pork bones, are boiled in the water to give it flavor. Various meats, vegetables, and other miscellaneous foodstuffs are individually ordered from the menu and then dipped in the hot pot where they are cooked while soaking up the spicy flavor.

For our hot pot, we ordered lean strips of dog meat, along with some cabbage leaves and lettuce. As is customary of Dongbei (Northeastern Chinese) food, several cold dishes were served as appetizers, including fresh seaweed, pickled garlic, and kimchi. Once the meat had been sufficiently cooked, I dipped my chopsticks into the pot to pull out a thin slice of meat. (I had pictures of this, but unfortunately they were on my camera which was stolen in Dalian). It was brown in color, coarse in texture, and from my view looked indistinguishable from beef. One of my accomplices recommend I dip it in some hot sauce which had been brought to our table by the waitress. After dabbing the morsel into the sauce, I popped it in my mouth. The meat was lean and coarse, but did not have a flavor as distinct as pork or beef. The closest comparison I could come to was rabbit. It certainly didn’t taste like chicken. We finished the meal, drank a few Tsingtao’s, and retired for the evening.

So as you’ve probably already ascertained, the answer to the original question of whether or not dog is eaten in China is an overwhelming “Yes.” There is no denying that our furry canine friends do often make their way on to the dinner table in the Middle Kingdom. However, there is still quite a bit of misunderstanding on the subject.

“What kinds of dogs do they eat?”

In and around Yanji, as well as other areas in China where canine consumption is practiced, the dogs which are eaten are not the same ones which live side by side with their human masters. Most are a “breed” of dog commonly referred to in China as 土狗 (tu3 gou3), which means “earth” or “wild” dog. These dogs have been mixed between so many breeds, that even referring to them as a “breed” would be a misnomer. They are not cute. They do not give affection. and they will not sit, heel, or roll over. Rather, they are raised on farms, and though domesticated, they are domesticated as farm animals, not pets. While it is not completely unheard of for pet dogs to mysteriously disappear in the Middle Kingdom, the vast majority of dog meat comes from these special dog farms, not the neighbor’s back yard.

“If one is to go to China and not interested in eating dog meat, how can they be certain this won’t happen by accident or trickery? Is it safe to eat food on the street? How does one know that the ‘pork’ skewers are actually pork and not dog or rat or snake or some other kind of weird animal?”

Dog meat in China (like rat and snake) is a delicacy, and therefore considerably more expensive than beef, chicken, or pork. The main reason that most human populations eat the animals they do centers around economics. When human labor, feed, and space requirements are all factored in, it is far more economical to raise cattle or pigs for human consumption than it would be to raise dogs; You simply get more meat for your buck. Hence the lower prices for pork and beef, and the higher price for dog meat. In all likelihood, it would be much more plausible for an unsuspecting tourist to order dog and be served pork, than it would be the other way around.

“So, how common exactly is dog eating in the Middle Kingdom?”

Although dog consumption does exist in China, is far less common than the consumption of more “mainstream” meats such as pork, beef, and chicken. Much of this centers on the price, as mentioned above. Sure, many Americans would love to eat lobster three times a week, but because of its price, it is usually reserved for special occasions. Dog meat in China is the same. While not prohibitively expensive, it surely is not economical to make a habit out of eating it. Additionally, places like Yanji are by no means the norm when it comes to meat selection. In many areas of China, dog meat is rarely, if ever, eaten at all. Furthermore, as dog ownership has increased in China, so to has the amount of Chinese people who refuse to eat dog, mainly on the same grounds as Westerners—they’re our cute, loyal, furry pets, not our banquet centerpiece.

For those willing to try dog meat, you won’t have to go all the way to Yanji to have a taste. In nearly every major Chinese city can be found a restaurant where it is served. Just look for the characters 狗肉 written on a restaurant sign.* And for those who are not too keen on eating man’s best friend, there is no need to worry. Just go ahead and order your kung pao chicken. I can assure you, it will be kung pao chicken.

*Since dog eating is not especially common in most parts of the country, it is often specifically advertised as a restaurant’s specialty.


 

05.01.08

The Chinese Siesta

Posted in Culture Clash, Down in Chinatown at 11:30 am by Benjamin Ross

There’s a little market called The Mayflower in Chicago’s Chinatown where I frequent about once a week to pick up Chinese cooking supplies and snacks which I can’t find at the big Jewel-Osco mega-grocery store near my house. Chinatown has several of these markets and so far I have found that there are few food products (with the exception of seasonal fruits) which I could buy in Fuzhou, but cannot find here in Chinatown.

The Mayflower, like most shops in Chinatown, jams an exorbitant amount of product into a comparatively undersized storefront. This results in crowded aisles, long check-out lines, and a somewhat stressful shopping experience. I frequently find myself inadvertently bumped into by other customers, as I’m sure I do to others as well, and scooting side to side to let other shoppers squeeze by.

Yesterday I went to The Mayflower to pick up some fresh bamboo and a few cooking supplies, and to my surprise, the store was almost entirely empty. I carelessly strolled through the wide-open aisles without dodging other customers, found my items, and made it to the check-out counter in about half the time it would usually require. Something seemed odd…that is until I glanced down at my cell phone to check the time—it was 12:20 PM.

Beijing delivery driver asleep xiuxi
Sites like this, a Beijing delivery driver taking a nap in the bed of his bicycle, are not uncommon around noontime in the Middle Kingdom.

The idea of an afternoon siesta, or 休息 (xiu1 xi1) is deeply entrenched into the Chinese lifestyle. While the exact times vary based on region and season, business in China typically shuts down around 11:00 or 11:30 and picks back up at about 1:30 or 2. The interim is used both as a lunch break and a nap time. During the mid-afternoon in China, it is not uncommon to see taxi drivers asleep in their cabs, shopkeepers dozing behind the counter, and construction workers playing cards or taking naps on bamboo mats. School children often return home to get fed and take a rest before returning to class, and office workers often do the same. As a general rule, it is also somewhat rude to call or visit someone at this time, as it is likely they are sleeping.

During my first year in China when I was living in Fuqing I found myself sinking into these same Chinese sleeping patterns. All of the teachers and students at my university would take a nap from 12:00 to 1:30, and there was nothing for me to do but take a nap as well. However, before long I found an even better use for my xiu xi time—going shopping and running errands!

Because much of China is asleep at this hour, it the ideal time slot to buy groceries, make a transaction at the bank, go shopping, or do anything other activity which would normally subject oneself to the ubiquitous masses of people which crowd the Middle Kingdom. Before long, I found myself consolidating all of my shopping to the time between 12 and 2 and found both the time and aggravation I was saving myself to be well worth it.

Here in Chicago’s Chinatown, Chinese and American cultures mix, and often result in a hybrid form of Sino-Americanization. While many American customs are adopted by the Chinese in the Windy City, there is also much which remains culturally Chinese, and the xiu xi is one of them. For me, at least I now know that early afternoon is the time to do my Chinese grocery shopping in Chicago too.


 

04.22.08

Table Talk

Posted in Culture Clash at 11:49 pm by Benjamin Ross

This past weekend I went back to Kansas City to catch up with friends and family, and celebrate my first Passover in the US since 2003. On my first day back in town I went out for sushi (which is now as American as a ham sandwich) with my dad, one of my brothers, and three of my dad’s friends. All of the guests were people whom I haven’t seen to much of for the past four or five years, and I was eager to catch up, even if only for the duration of the lunch.

However, throughout the meal, I couldn’t stop thinking about one thing…the table. What was so strange about the table you might ask? Well, from an American standpoint, nothing. It was a typical rectangular table with three chairs on either side. Three of us sat on the side facing the sushi bar, and three sat on the other. As we were eating, I noticed that for the majority of the time, there were three separate conversations going on, with each person chatting with the person they were sitting across from. I was sitting on the end of the side which was not facing the sushi counter. While at times I did find myself in conversation with the my dad and my brother, who were both occupying the middle spots, I found I could only talk to my dad’s friend at the other end on the other side by shouting over the table. As for my dad’s other friend who was sitting on the same side as me, but on the other end, it was virtually impossible to communicate until we got up from the table.

chinese dinner table
Diners at a Chinese meal typically sit around a circular table, so as to facilitate a conversation which can include everybody.

This would never have struck me as odd, had I not ever lived in China, where the vast majority of all tables are circular.* With a circular table, all guests can see each other as they eat, making it considerably more conducive to everyone being involved in the conversation. With a rectangular table, conversation tends to be fragmented down to groups of two or three.

While I was teaching in China, I heard several strange stereotypes from my students in regards to Westerners eating habits. One of which was that Westerners don’t talk during their meals. Not only is this inaccurate, but I would argue that the most basic function of a casual meal between old friends within Western society is very much analogous to that of Chinese society. Guests enjoy tasty food and a nice atmosphere, and possibly have something to drink. However, most importantly, it is a social event, and thus communication is the centerpiece. Why then are rectangular tables so popular in the West?

*We have circular tables in the US too, but rectangular ones are far more common.


 

03.09.08

Daylight Savings Time in China???…没有了!

Posted in Culture Clash, Local Customs, Travel Log (Asia) at 10:48 pm by Benjamin Ross

Today was the most dreaded day of the American calendar year. Spring forward day—the one Sunday per year which lives for only 23 hours. This leads to a frequent question. “What’s the time difference between China and the US? “ It’s not an uncommon question to get asked by Chinese friends who live a metaphorical dig through the center of the earth away from us. However, for a Chinese asking an American about the 2 countries time difference, he will get an answer similarly complicated from the one an American would receive after asking a Chinese his age.

The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, there is no daylight savings time in China. If Fuzhou is 14 hours ahead of Chicago in December, then it would stand beyond all possible explanations that Fuzhou should be 14 hours ahead of Chicago in July as well. Time in China doesn’t change. The idea of daylight savings time is totally foreign to the Chinese. You never spring forward nor fall back.

The other difference is that China is on a single time zone, unlike the continental US which is on 4. Since the vast majority of China’s population lives along the east coast, which would presumably be, if China had one, the Eastern Standard Time Zone, China’s lack of time zones doesn’t bear much effect on most of the country.

=
A quiet alley in Kashgar’s Old City. 9:45 PM.

Where it is most noticeable is Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in China’s Northwest. Going to Xinjiang in and of itself is a unique experience. With it’s rich Uighur/Muslim traditions, and Han Chinese minority (outside of the capital), it is easy to forget you are still in the Middle Kingdom.

But one of Xinjiang’s most unique features may be its time, nowhere more so than China’s westernmost city, Kashgar, which just miles from the borders of Tajikistan and Krygistan, is over 2000 miles due west of Beijing. During summer nights in Kashgar, the sky doesn’t get completely dark until nearly 11 pm. Sunrise occurs predictably late as well. This extended evening daylight, combined with the arid climate, makes Kashgar an excellent summer travel destination. You can do your sightseeing for the day, stop for meal of 抓饭 and 烤肉, (Xinjiang rice and shish-kebob), and then still have 5 hours of daylight to explore the sites.

But what about those who have more business in Xinjiang than backpacking around the region’s tourist attractions and tasting its Hallel culinary delights? What about those who live in work in Kashgar, and must keep some semblance of a reasonable time schedule?…enter Xinjiang Unofficial Time.

Since China does have only one official time, all government related operations (i.e. banks, post office, courts, etc.) run on Beijing Standard Time. To compensate for this time difference, work hours for most Xinjiang government employees begin around 9:30 or 10, rather than 8.

But for residents of Kashgar, they prefer to use “Xinjiang time,” which is 2 hours behind Beijing time. So 8 p.m. Beijing time would be 6 p.m. Xinjiang time. Since most people prefer to use Xinjiang time, but the government runs everything on Beijing time, this creates a potentially confusing situation, as “6 pm” to one person may refer to an entirely different time to another. Therefore, when making plans in Xinjiang, locals will not only agree on what time they will meet, but also what time they are using.

Person A: “What time do you want to get dinner?

Person B: “How about 6 pm?”

Person A: “Will that be Xinjiang time or Beijing time?”

Person B” “6 pm Xinjiang time.”

To me both countries’ respective systems make sense. It is quite complicated having a single country on 4 different time zones, (and I’m sure millions of other people in the Central Time Zone who have at one time set their VCR’s to 8:00, to record a program which was on at 7:00 would concur). Yet, with our population spread out along both coasts, there really isn’t much choice but to break up the time zones. With China having roughly 90% of its population fitting into an area which could conceivably fit into a single time zone, it would almost be more trouble than its worth to break it up, regardless of other subtle inferences could be drawn by breaking up the country into another regional divide. So instead they keep the country on a single time zone, and let the locals make up their own time if they so desire. As for the laowai travelers, it’s another great reason to go to Xinjiang.


 

01.31.08

Skiing and the Art of Chinese Toiletry

Posted in Culture Clash, Personal Anecdotes at 12:34 pm by Benjamin Ross

Last week I spent five days in Colorado for a good friend of mine’s bachelor party. Part of the bachelor party itinerary included a day of skiing. For those of you who have never enjoyed the sensation of downhill skiing, it is one of the most intense lower body workouts one can experience. First-time skiers often gripe that they use muscles that they never even knew they had, and a single day of skiing often leads to several days of soreness from the quads all the way down to the feet. The more one skies, the more their leg muscles gradually acclimate to the new positions and flexes that the sport demands. If one continues skiing throughout the season, the leg pains diminish to the point where they are hardly noticeable. But as soon as one takes an extended break from skiing, the pains and cramps start right back up again the next time they hit the slopes.

So for me it came as quite the pleasant surprise, when after a 4 year gap in skiing excursions, I completed my first day back on the mountain with my lower body feeling almost exactly as it had when I had woken up in the morning. To be honest, I was actually looking forward to the soreness, the feeling that my body was tired from the muscular workout, but it never happened. Usually the soreness of skiing doesn’t fully set in until the following morning, so I waited…and woke up the next morning…nothing. There was a slight soreness in my calves, but my quads (where the majority aching usually occurs) felt as if I had not even skied at all.

This was odd. Not only had I not skied in 4 years, but thanks to the Chicago winter, I had barely even exercised in the past 2 months. After pondering my lower body muscles’ sudden acclimation to extreme stress, I finally figured out the culprit…my Chinese toilet!

chinese toilet
A typical Chinese toilet…in this instance, the hole is submerged in toilet paper.

Unlike the toilets common in the Western world where a toilet’s ergonomics are designed to represent those of a chair, a traditional Chinese toilet* is designed to represent a hole in the ground. Typically, the hole is at one end of a porcelain oval. The user squats over the oval, does their business, and then pushes a button that releases a stream of water which whisks the remnants down the hole. The most difficult aspect, however, is balancing oneself over the porcelain oval, which like skiing, requires one to use muscles they never knew they had—not to mention superb balancing skills, unless there is an available guardrail nearby.

When I lived in Fuqing from March 2004 until June 2005, all I had in my apartment was a Chinese toilet. Using it effectively was one of my greatest challenges upon originally moving to China. It wasn’t that I had any cultural or sanitary aversions to popping a squat, but rather that after 3 or 4 minutes of squatting over my new throne, my legs would give out. I was forced into timing my excretions so that I would enter the bathroom just before the impending droppage moment. I also had to relinquish my preconceived idea that my time in the bathroom should be relaxing. Rather than turning the pages of a magazine, my arms had now become balancing aids, and the limitations of my leg muscles no longer afforded me the time in the bathroom to finish reading the latest sports scores.

How did the Chinese do it? Why would any people design a toilet which was so physically demanding to use? The more I thought about it, the more incredulous I became. I knew from traveling and college anthropology classes that the squatty potty had been the default toilet for the majority of the world (not just China) throughout most of human history, and that it was probably a misnomer to refer to it as a “Chinese toilet” since it was Westerners who first began molding their porcelain goddesses in the image of a chair. Therefore, it would probably be more accurate to refer to our toilets as “Western toilets” and to my little porcelain oval as simply a “toilet.”

As I traveled around China, I noticed that Chinese squatting occurred in more arenas than just that of the bathroom. I would see Chinese workers spending their breaks squatting in the streets, reading the newspaper in squatting positions, playing cards in squatting positions, and on several instances even sleeping, leaned against a wall in a squatting position. How was it that they were able to relax in this position, one that I could barely even hold for 3 minutes, merely for the sake of carrying out one of nature’s most basic functions?

As the months wore on, I began to notice my legs were no longer giving out as quickly on me in the bathroom. The pain that I once felt in my quadriceps had diminished, and I found myself able to remain squatted over my porcelain oval for increasingly longer periods of time. My balance improved as well, and one day, during my first summer in Fuqing, I undertook the bold task of attempting to read the sports page of the China Daily while in a squat position over my Chinese toilet. With a little practice, and several near catastrophes, I was finally able to balance myself well enough and long enough to actually start enjoying my time in the bathroom again. As time passed, I was able to remain in the squatting position longer and longer, and not just on my toilet. I would squat when I had to pick something off of the ground, squat when chatting with the migrant workers around my building, and on several occasions even squat while eating street food when no tables were available. After a year and a half of daily squatty potty usage, I was able to remain in the squatting position for nearly an hour before my muscles would begin to cramp up.

Now fast forward back to my ski trip. Even though I have not used a Chinese toilet since August, it seems that the muscle I built up from squatting in China is still present in my lower body. Otherwise, I can think of no other possible medical explanation for my lack of soreness from my first day of intense skiing after a 4 year layover. This wouldn’t be the only benefit of defecating Chinese style, as squat toilets are generally more sanitary as well as easier on the colon than those in which one sits. But if it truly is my Chinese toilet which has led to my apparent increased lower muscular endurance, then maybe the U.S. ski team should adopt a policy of using only Chinese toilets.

*Thesedays most newer Chinese buildings are equipped with the same sit-down toilets found in the West


 

01.25.08

Photos that Scream “China”

Posted in Culture Clash at 12:13 pm by Benjamin Ross

Every so often I snap a picture which just screams “China.” Here’s one of them I found when cleaning out my camera. Feel free to write your own captions.

chinese girls umbrella

 

01.13.08

No Lefties in China?

Posted in Culture Clash at 10:30 pm by Benjamin Ross

This past December, I was invited to a Chinese Christmas party in Chinatown.  During the party, I was conversing with a middle-aged gentleman who had lived in the US for ten years.  When the conversation turned to culture shock I asked him what he thought was the strangest thing he saw when he first came to the US.

“Left handed people,” he replied without any hesitation.

“You don’t have left-handed people in China?” I inquired making sure I hadn’t mistranslated his words.

“Nope, I had never seen anybody write with their left hand until I came to the U.S.” he said.

“How is that possible?” I asked, “Isn’t that genetic?”

“Maybe so, but in China kids are all taught to write with their right hands.  If they pick up a pencil with their left hand, the teacher will put it in their right.  It’s really just a matter of practicality.  In the US, you have left-handed desks, left handed guitars, and all sorts of other left handed devices, but in China we have none of the sort.  It works out better that way I think, no need to manufacture 2 different kinds of something when only one is necessary.”

As he brought this up I vaguely remember my grandmother telling me how when she was a little girl she had picked up objects with her left hand, and her mother would always put it in her right, so much so that she eventually became completely right-handed.  This practice however seems to have fallen mostly out of practice in the US.  Since I’m no longer in China I can’t really check whether or not this man’s story checks out, but I do not recall ever personally encountering any southpaws in the land of the Middle Kingdom.  Can anybody out their either confirm or deny the existence of left-handed Chinese?


 

12.22.07

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?


 

12.19.07

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.

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