08.04.07

Identical Twins and Individuality

Posted in Culture Clash, Society at 2:45 am by Benjamin Ross

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.

Chinese identical twins
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.


 

06.26.07

People Mountain People Sea

Posted in Society at 12:51 am by Benjamin Ross

There is a Chinese idiom (人山人海 ren2 shan1 ren2 hai3) which literally means “people mountain people sea.” The figurative meaning of this is “There are a lot of people” in a particular area. As one would guess, this idiom is used quite often in China. Every so often I like to remind myself how truly enormous the population of China is. Here’s a little statistical analysis where I ranked the world’s most populous countries, but counted each Chinese province as its own country. The listings in red are Chinese provinces. The rest are all independent nations. Statistics courtesy of wikipedia.

1 India 1,169,016,000
2 United States 302,500,000
3 Indonesia 231,627,000
4 Brazil 186,800,000
5 Pakistan 163,630,000
6 Bangladesh 158,665,000
7 Nigeria 148,093,000
8 Russia 142,499,000
9 Japan 127,720,000
10 Mexico 103,263,388
11 Henan 97,170,000
12 Shandong 91,800,000
13 Philippines 88,706,300
14 Vietnam 87,375,000
15 Sichuan 87,250,000
16 Guangdong 83,040,000
17 Germany 82,400,996
18 Ethiopia 77,127,000
19 Egypt 75,498,000
20 Turkey 74,822,000
21 Jiangsu 74,330,000
22 Iran 71,208,000
23 Hebei 68,090,000
24 Hunan 66,980,000
25 Anhui 64,610,000
26 France (including overseas France 64,102,140
27 Thailand 62,828,706
28 Congo-Kinshasa 62,636,000
29 United Kingdom 60,209,500
30 Hubei 60,160,000
31 Italy 59,093.092
32 Myanmar 48,798,000
33 South Africa 48,577,000
34 Guangxi 48,890,000
35 South Korea 48,244,000
36 Zhejiang 47,200,000
37 Ukraine 46,205,000
38 Spain 45,116,894
39 Yunnan 44,150,000
40 Jiangxi 42,840,000
41 Columbia 42,770,000
42 Liaoning 42,170,000
43 Tanzania 40,454,400
44 Argentina 39,531,000
45 Guizhou 39,040,000
46 Sudan 38,560,000
47 Heilongjiang 38,170,000
48 Poland 38,132,277
49 Kenya 37,538,000
50 Shaanxi 37,050,000
51 Fujian 35,110,000
52 Algeria 33,858,000
53 Shanxi 33,350,000
54 Canada 32,934,400
55 Morocco 31,224,000
56 Chongqing (municipality) 31,220,000
57 Uganda 30,884,000
58 Iraq 28,993,000
59 Nepal 28,196,000
60 Peru 27,903,000
61 Venezuela 27,657,000
62 Uzbekistan 27,372,000
63 Afghanistan 27,145,000
64 Malaysia 27,140,000
65 Jilin 27,090,000
66 Gansu 26,190,000
67 Saudi Arabia 24,735,000
68 Inner Mongolia 23,840,000
69 North Korea 23,790,000
70 Ghana 23,478,000

Food for thought:

-Of the 70 “countries” on this list, 23 of them are Chinese provinces.

-Henan, Shandong, Sichuan, and Guangdong all have larger populations than the most populous European state, Germany.

-Fujian has roughly the same population as Canada.

-There are 8 Chinese provinces with populations larger than France.

China is definitely people mountain people sea!


 

06.10.07

Continued Education and the Rural/Urban Divide

Posted in Barbershop, Fujian, Society at 9:38 am by Benjamin Ross

There were several interesting comments relating to continued education on my last post. I began responding to them in comment form, but when the comment began taking up an entire page, I decided this topic was worthy of a new post.

Ty from Ireland sums things up by saying:

It is incorrect to say that college entrance exam is the only way to receive higher education in China. There is a system called GaoZiKao, higher education through self learning. You could, if you work hard enough and possess the capability, get a degree after passing a number of exams on different subjects. The system has been there for years. Having said that, it is very hard for someone to finish a degree in that way because you have to work in the meantime to make a living.

I have known several Chinese people who have completed such programs, especially the zi kao. What I have noticed (and again I am making a generalization on 1.3 billion people based on my own observations) is that typically the people who enroll in these kinds of programs are urban residents. Here in Fuzhou, almost all kids get into high school, and generally speaking, they are expected to get into college as well. Not being accepted into college will often define a city resident as an underachiever. This is quite different in rural areas, where being accepted to college is comparatively less common and still quite an accomplishment. When I was teaching in Fuqing, most of my students were from rural areas, and were the first person in their family ever to receive education past high school.

Most of my coworkers in the barbershop come from the same backgrounds as my students in Fuqing, except the did not study hard enough to get into college. In fact, with the exception of only two or three little brothers, most of them did not even get accepted into high school either, thus ending their formal educations at the age of 16.

If a student from Fuzhou does not get into college, it can be a little bit of an embarrassment for the family, not to mention a limit on future opportunities. Because of this, parents will often insist that their child take time off to complete programs such as zi kao or night classes, to further their education.

With rural residents it is not so easy. For starters, there is the economic factor. Most rural families are not nearly as wealthy as those from cities, and need their children to immediately begin working as soon as they have reached the terminal point in their education. If their children test well enough to get into college, they will often borrow money from family members in order to pay for their child’s tuition. In a family which is predominantly uneducated, having a child who can enter college, is like an investment, which if it pays off, will benefit the entire family. However, if the child does not get accepted into college (or an equivalent vocational program i.e. 大专) they usually set off for work, like the little brothers and sisters in the barber shop. Once they begin working, continued education often becomes impractical.

In the case of the barber shop, the little brothers and sisters each put in over 70 hour work weeks. As Ty mentions, it would be virtually impossible for them to enroll in any kind of continuing education program, and expect to have enough time to study enough to do reasonably well. This not even mentioning obtaining the money to pay for the training.

I have pondered how much studying could be accomplished during the excessive down time we have in the barber shop. While you might not be able to attain any certifications, there still is certainly an enormous amount of room for personal improvement. After only a few weeks of informal exchanges, Adamum is now able to correctly pronounce a decent collection of English greetings and swears, and I can now do the same in the Fuzhou dialect. It wouldn’t be too far off to posit that if I were to work in the shop for a full year, Adamum would be speaking fluent English, and I would be doing most of my communication in Fuzhou hua. I brought up this topic of studying to Chen Lin (a little brother) once and he responded with a sarcastic smile “Study? The reason we all work here is because we hate studying and we aren’t good at it. If I was good at studying I would have finished high school.” So there you go.


 

05.20.07

Corruption in the Barbershop

Posted in Barbershop, Society at 2:27 am by Benjamin Ross

<< previous post

A few days ago a Chinese friend (let’s call him Xiao He) came into the barber shop for a hair wash. Xiao He is only in his mid-twenties, but was born into a rich, powerful family and now is a high ranking official in the Fuzhou city government. As his scalp was being massaged by Johnny, Xiao He mentioned to me (in English so nobody else could understand) “You know, Ben if I wanted to, I could show your boss my government ID badge and insist on not paying the 12 RMB for this hair wash. Your boss would not object, and I would be able to get a free wash.” This is not what Xiao He was planning on doing. Instead he was bringing it up to me to illustrate an example of the extent to which his power could go if he so chose.

The topic of corruption came up again yesterday as I was chatting with Jiang (the barber) outside of the shop. “You see that guy in there?” he said pointing to a man inside the shop. “He is 当官的.”

当官的 (dang1 guan1) refers to those leaders who are of a high enough position to use their authority to obtain discounts on everything from KTV rooms and prostitutes to haircuts and parking tickets.

“Whenever the 当官的 come in the shop, they get everything for free…haircuts, dyes, perms, nothing is charged.” Jiang continued. “Especially for the tax collection bureau. It works like this. If Mr. Zheng doesn’t give the tax collectors free haircuts, then when it is time to pay taxes, he will have to pay the full tax. However, if he gives them free haircuts and dyes, then they will give him a discount. Say he owes 1000 RMB in taxes. They will only make him pay 600 RMB. This is the only way to do business in China. If he were to pay the full tax, there is no chance his business could be successful.”

I had been aware this system applied to bars and brothels, but did not know that it trickles down to small businesses as well. Next time a 45 year old man wearing Giorgio Armani and driving a Buick comes in for a 500 RMB perm and doesn’t pay, I’ll know why.

FYI: I also asked Jiang if Mr. Zheng has to pay off the mob. To this he answered, “No, that’s only for the bars and brothels.”

next post >>


 

05.15.07

Where are all the women?

Posted in Barbershop, Society at 2:07 am by Benjamin Ross

<< previous post

A few days ago a reader asked me if I knew why there were so many men in the presumably effeminate Chinese hair care business. I had never considered this before, but it certainly holds true with my shop. Of the nineteen employees (myself included), only four are female, and two of them are the managers who only handle money transactions and have nothing to do with customers’ hair. The boss is a man. All five barbers are men, and there are eight little brothers and only two little sisters. Why such the gender divide?

Women are certainly in short supply in the Chinese hair care industry. This is me with 3/4 of the barbershop female staff, managers Xiao Huang (far left) and Ling Ling (far right) and Zhen Qing (second from left).

Zhen Qing (fake name) is one of our two little sisters. She is nineteen years old, and has been working in the barbershop for two years. This morning while waiting for customers, I brought up the question to her.

“It seems like most workers in the hairstyling industry in China are men. I would think the job would be more appealing to women, so why so are there so many more men?” I asked her.

“You’re right, there are definitely a lot more men than women. That’s because women prefer to work in the skin care and body massage industry rather than the hairstyling industry. If you go to a skin care shop or a massage shop, you will notice most of the employees are women.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

Zhen Qing placed her hands on the table. “I have good hands now, but working in this industry for a long time will eventually ruin, make them rough and not nice to touch. The hair care products do damage to the skin while the skin care products are beneficial to the skin. In China it is very important for a woman to have good hands. So most Chinese women do not want to work in barbershops.”

I thought about this for a moment. Images came back to me of Mr. Zheng’s hands. Mr. Zheng is in his late thirties and has a look of youth in his face, but his hands have been ravaged from years of contact with hair chemicals. I recalled my massage training with Cheng Qing and how his hands had the feel of slightly dulled sand paper.

“This is why there are so few female barbers in China.” Zhen Qing continued.

“Becoming a barber is a long process, and it requires years of hair washing and doing dyes and perms. By the time the whole process is complete, the hands will have already been ruined.”

“Is it possible to skip the washing/dying/perming process and train directly to become a barber?” I asked, remembering that the barbers in the shop typically do not do anything else except cut hair.

“Yes, if you work in a small shop you only need to train for a few months to become a barber, but working in a small shop is not good,” Zhen Qing replied.

“Why not? Is the pay lower than a shop like this?” I inquired (Our shop is more of the upscale variety).

“No, the pay is about the same.”

“Then what’s the advantage of working in this kind of shop, when you could work in a smaller shop, get the same salary, and become a barber in a matter of months?” I asked.

“It’s the environment. The customers’ 素质 is much lower in smaller shop than in ours.”

素质 (su4 zhi4) is one of those Chinese concepts which is difficult to translate into English. It refers is an aggregated evaluation of one’s education, class background, financial status, manners and etiquette. Our customers pay 30 RMB per haircut and usually come from the upper echelon of the Fuzhou social ladder. There is a smaller shop down the street which gives haircuts for 10 RMB. Accordingly, their clientele are mostly from the lower working class.

Beauty is important to women everywhere in the world, but to some, even beauty fails when stood up against the pressures of social class. For Zhen Qing, she hopes one day to finish the training process and become a barber. If she has to ruin her hands in the process then so be it. She’d rather be washing the heads of Fuzhou’s nuveau riche then laboring over those of other workers.

next post >>


 

03.24.07

Paper or Plastic? (Update)

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

Continued from Paper or Plastic?

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

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

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

 

03.06.07

Combating overpopulation…with Korea Style No Hurt 3-Minute Abortion

Posted in Health and Medicine, Society at 8:07 pm by Benjamin Ross

abortion China one child policy

As I was meandering around downtown Fuzhou the night before last week’s Lantern Festival, I came across this sign at a bus stop. For those of you who don’t 说中国话 it’s an advertisement for the gynecology department of the Fuzhou Peace Hospital’s new “Korean-Style No Hurt 3-minute abortion.”

Back in Kansas, I remember most public advertisements for abortion usually involved a yard full of crosses each representing a child who had been “murdered,” as a result of abortion. There was nothing about them being pain-free, nothing about them only taking 3 minutes, and certainly nothing about them being Korean style.

As ridiculous, and admittedly hilarious as this sign may be, it does reveal one characteristic about Chinese people, that is that abortion in China is not nearly as sensitive as it is in the Bible Belt of North America. Abortion in China is not a controversial issue, nor is it a highly debated topic. Rather it is simply a medical procedure just like LASEC, an appendectomy, on say…a boob job (there are public signs for those too).

These days, many of China’s hospitals are privatized, and fierce competition entices them into spending large amounts of time and energy on advertising. Hospital advertisements can be seen on sign boards all over Fuzhou (especially near college campuses) with the stereotypical image of a nurse in her young twenties, and a smiling patient (usually also a woman) comfortably within her grasp. It wasn’t until I could read the word 人流 (abortion) that I realized what all the signs with happy smiling women were all about.

China just may be the most “pro-choice” country in the world, as abortion is not only 100% legal and unrestrected, but based on these advertisements, I’m assuming it’s not too difficult to get one either. Contraception is easily attainable as well. Condoms are sold at convenience stores, sex shops, and random dispensers in public places and birth control pills can be purchased for around 20 RMB (approx $1.60 USD) per month at any pharmacy, without a prescription.

One reason behind the government’s stance on contraception and abortion is that China simply has too many people. Restricting abortions would make the problem even worse. While official estimates set the population at just over 1.3 billion, it is widely accepted that the actual population may be as high as 1.6 billion.

China one child policy abortion
The big characters in the middle of this sign read “free abortion.”

To combat overpopulation, China has instituted the often criticized and aptly mistranslated “one child policy,” whereby the state limits the amount of children a couple may have. Couples in cities are usually only allowed one child, and having a second child will result in a hefty fine or possibly a loss of job in the case of government workers. Certain conditions such as being a member of a Chinese minority, having a foreign spouse, or living in designated rural areas, will allow a couple to have two.

Regardless of any perceived violation of civil liberties, China’s population is simply too massive, and the failure of the government to curtail it would bring about disaster for the country and possibly the entire world. There is simply no alternative.

One unintended outcome of the “One Child Policy” however was the ensuing drive by couples to spawn a male child. Traditionally in China, it is the responsibility of children to care for their parents in their old age. Nursing homes are rare, and that responsibility typically falls on the sons, as when a daughter marries, she becomes a member of her husband’s family, and thus her responsibility turns toward his parents. Essentially, your sons are your social security.

This system worked out fine and dandy for several thousand years, as if a son wasn’t produced on the first shot (no pun intended), a couple could try and try again. But now with the “One Child Policy” it has become essential for the first child to be a male, otherwise a couple could potentially be left to fend for themselves after retirement. The emphasis on having a son has even driven many couples to abort fetuses if they are girls.

In an interesting bit of irony, while abortion is legal in China, this favoritism towards male children has caused the government to enact a law whereby it is illegal for doctors to reveal the sex of a fetus before birth, for fear that if the parents know it is a girl, they may opt to have an abortion. This is not to say, that this does not happen, as China now mysteriously has around 30 million more men than women.

While I do not believe the government’s population policy has directly caused the latest innovations in abortion and technology and their zany add campaigns, it certainly has done nothing to curtail it. Nobody knows for sure how many abortions happen per year in China, (even if I could find statistics I wouldn’t trust them), but I am guessing the number of aborted fetuses would be enough to equal the population of several small European states. And a market that size certainly leaves room for service innovation. At least I know that if I ever unwillingly pass my seed onto a Chinese womb, I will have ethnic options when choosing my abortion technique.


 

02.16.07

Paper or Plastic?

Posted in Culture Clash, Local Customs, Society at 5:19 pm by Benjamin Ross

Today I went to the market and bought an onion. The seller wrapped it in a plastic bag. It was the only thing I bought, and I wasn’t really sure what kind of difficulty carrying an onion possesed, which would require me to seek the assistance of a plastic bag. The Chinese have a peculiar fixation with plastic bags. Every item, no matter how small or easily carried is wrapped in the obligatory plastic. It’s almost as if anything purchased in China must not leave the store without being first wrapped in plastic.

Don’t get me wrong, plastic bags are an incredible invention and certainly have their place in society. Try living a week without using a plastic bag, and see how far you get. The strange thing in China is that their use is almost more compulsory rather than functional, as if you don’t get your item wrapped in plastic, you are somehow being ripped off. I’m not talking about going to the grocery store, buying a week’s worth of groceries and having them wrapped up. What I am talking about is walking into a store empty handed, buying a single item, such as toothpaste, a bottle of water, or beef jerky and having it wrapped in a bag. The other day, I even went to the store to buy a pack of trash bags, and those were wrapped in a bag. Even items which already come in a bag such as bread and laundry detergent are wrapped in another plastic bag when you buy them.

To me this all seems a little ridiculous and wasteful. I am no major environmental activist, but this got me thinking…Imagine the ecological effect if everybody in China (there are 1.3 billion people officially) used one less bag per day. That’s 1.3 billion bags per day which don’t end up in the incinerator and floating around the atmosphere, (which is what happens to most trash in China). Actually, I began thinking about this over a year ago, and since then whenever I buy less than 3 things, I ask for no bag, and my savings have easily eclipsed one bag per day. The shop attendants look at me funny when I tell them I don’t need a bag, as if I’m telling them I don’t need my change back or something. Then I simply politely tell them that it’s wasteful to wrap a single item in a bag, and that it’s just as easy to carry it in your hands. Usually they agree, but still continue their policy of wrapping single items in bags.

continued 3/24/07 in Paper or Plastic? (update)


 

01.26.07

HAA-LOW!!!

Posted in Society at 7:20 pm by Benjamin Ross

It’s late afternoon in a crowded shopping district anywhere in China. After buying some Chinese tea and scarfing down a Big Mac, you are walking back to the bus stop when suddenly out of the blue you hear a voice coming from a Chinese guy with a baseball hat and a Yao Ming jersey walking your direction: “HAA—LOW!” After two and a half years in China, there is not a single word in the English language that I detest as much as the one which is the first and possibly only word known by many of the world’s non-English speakers.

Of the many common annoyances which come with living in China, the constant “hello’s” are one I still have not been able to get over. Here’s how it works. You are walking nonchalantly down a crowded street when a young guy (of the hundreds of times this has happened, it has never once been a female) turns to you with a grin on his face, and just as he passes you, yells “HAA—LOW.” What comes out usually sounds more like the word “hollow” than it does like “hello.”

When I first got to China, I was often confused, my first reaction thinking that the hello-wers were simply people whom I had briefly met before, but couldn’t remember (Fuqing was a small place like that). Later, I postulated that the “hello’s” were simply a kind gesture, so as to say “Welcome to China our foreign friend” or something along those lines. I didn’t hear the full story until one night I was walking around downtown Fuqing with my Chinese friend Yueting, when a group of teenage boys with spiky hair and warm-up suits, passed us bringing with them a chorus of “HAAA-LOWWW.” Yueting turned to me and angrily said “I hate that,” and pointed out that Chinese people never greet strangers (this is true) and that the “hello’s” were purely mocking in nature. To put it simply, it would be like me walking around the streets in Kansas City, and whenever I see a Chinese person (or any Asian for that matter) yelling “Chinaman” at them. I’m sure this has happened at points in US history.

I should mention that the “hello’s” come in several different flavors, and aren’t always inherently mocking in their intent. There is the occasional student who passes me on the street, probably freshly out of English class, who gives me a casual “hello,” not in attempt to make a joke, but simply to be polite, or as a small opportunity to use the English he has learned in school, albeit such a small morsel. There is also that eager English learner who will accost any foreigner in the street in attempt to strike up conversation to practice their English. This, although annoying at times, is at least respectful, and doesn’t come with any condescending feelings. Then there are the parents who eagerly push their children to “say ‘hello’ to the foreigner” as if I am some kind of zoo animal. However, I would estimate that 80% of the “hello’s” I receive, fall into the mocking category.

In addition to “hello” there is also the occasional (although less and less these days) shout of “lao wai,” which literally means “old outside” or more accurately “foreigner.” “Laowai” is a complicated term, and contrary to the belief of many laowai, it’s connotation is not always negative. It’s often used in conversation as a convenient abbreviation for the technical term for foreigner, “wai guo ren,” which literally means “outside country person.”

In a completely isolated instance, one time I was walking around a downtown Fuqing, when I passed a group of teenage boys. Just as I passed, out from the crowd came the phrase “Suck my dick!” in heavily accented English. All the boys laughed. This time I was laughing too.

The “hello” problem is typically inversely proportional to how cosmopolitan a particular city is. For example, in Shanghai if you hear a “hello” it’s probably from the white guy going the other direction on the escalator who notices that you two are wearing the same Van Halen T-shirt. Beijing is the same. In the big cities, the novelty of foreigners is stale enough that you can no longer get a rise out of simply yelling “hello” at them.

So how do you deal with this “problem?” One way is to just suck it in and keep walking as if nobody is talking to you. The most humiliating response is to turn around and give the deer in the headlights “Hey, somebody just said ‘hello’ to me.” look. Ignoring somebody who is yelling at you from ten feet away can be demeaning enough in some situations and provide an adequate feeling of retribution. A while ago my girlfriend suggested (and now regrets teaching me) the phrase “gan ma,” which means something along the lines of “What the fuck are you doing?” not in the tone you would get from your parents after leaving the bathwater running until it overflowed, but more so in the sense of the way people would respond if you stood at a street corner in July singing Christmas carols with your underwear on the outside of your pants. Basically, if you walk up to an average Chinese person and yell “ni hao” at them, “gan ma” is what you will get in return. “Gan ma” worked really well because not only did it throw a quick curveball at the heckler (a typical hello-wer isn’t expecting the foreigner to speak any Chinese) but it also turned the joke back around at them. My favorite time to pull this one out was when a Chinese guy, in the company of females, would “hello” me in an attempt to show off…at my expense. Replying with “gan ma” would turn the tables and then he would find himself being laughed at by the girls in his company.

Last May I traveled to Jiangxi and Hunan province with my friend Ron (check out the pics www.benross.net/photos.htm ), and naturally we ran into a lot of hello-ers as we were traveling through small towns. After getting some good mileage out of “gan ma” we came up with an even better solution to the “hello” problem. If one of us heard a “hello” we would immediately turn to the other and with a puzzled look, ask, in Chinese “What language is that guy speaking?” The other one would reply back “I’m not sure, maybe Russian? Pakistani?” This took people completely off balance, with the hecklers either apologizing to us in Chinese, or simply scurrying away, bewildered.

Note: As with most of the “bad behaviors” that Westerners commonly make note of in China, it is only a small percentage of the population who participates in the hello-ing. By in large, most Chinese people would probably find it inappropriate and rude as well.

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