Wednesday, October 26, 2011

“7YH” and Other Unscholarly Analyses

 As it is only just to give credit where credit is due, I’d like to first acknowledge Mike Kehoe as the wise young man whose ideas were the inspiration for the following entry.

I’m not a party animal by any means, but I don’t usually think twice about going out and having fun once the weekend rolls around.  When I arrived in China, it didn’t take too long to realize that the college student culture is a little different here. In these past two months or so, we’ve only managed to get about three Chinese roommates to come out with us for a night.

Now, let’s soak this in. I’m in Shanghai, arguably the most exciting and entertaining city in all of Mainland China – bars, lounges, dance clubs, live music, restaurants, bowling, karaoke – you name it, you can find everything here. So why are Chinese college students so opposed to enjoying all that Shanghai nightlife has to offer? Do they not like to have fun? Do they look down upon drinking and partygoers?

My answer: the Chinese are unknowingly victims of what I call the Seven Year Hypothesis (7YH), a conjecture which states that the Chinese youth are seven years behind Westerners in terms of maturity. In believing in this hypothesis, one can come to make sense of this important cultural difference.

For instance, a friend might ask me, “Why doesn’t my 21-year-old roommate want to come out to a bar with us tonight?” upon which I can confidently respond, “He’s only 14, don’t be so hard on him”.

 My friend Marybeth’s roommate wears pajamas that even a 9-year-old American girl would think are way too childish. And what can she almost always be found doing when she’s in the dorm? Watching cartoons.

Kehoe’s roommate has watched a Justin Bieber concert tour video at least three times. His ring tone: a Justin Bieber song, of course.

My friend Justin’s roommate plays World of Warcraft, a computer game, all night long. My friend Andrew’s roommate takes “staying in” to a whole new level. He has a wireless mouse, so with his computer on his desk a good ten feet away, he lies down on his bed and rolls his mouse on his chest.

What’s more is you can often find young professionals or upper-level students still living with their parents who have strict curfews. In fact, Kehoe works with a 26-year-old girl who lives at home. Her curfew: 11pm! Take away seven years, and she’s now 19. Oooph, still pretty old. Ladies and gentlemen, we may have an outlier.

The nightlife that we American college students value is more a part of the Chinese business lifestyle than of the Chinese college student. Accordingly, I think many Chinese kids consider themselves too young and inexperienced to go out for drinks and the like. *

Summarizing thoughts: Chinese students like to watch television and play computer games instead of going out, and their lives are still largely controlled by their parents. This sounds a lot like my life… when I was 13.

7YH is perhaps most salient when looking at the dating scene in China. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear a Chinese girl my age tell me that she prefers to receive a note informing her that a guy likes her than hear from the guy in person. Sounds a lot like middle school, huh? I can’t imagine an American college student landing a date if he didn’t even have the nerve to approach a girl he liked.

In the end, the Seven Year Hypothesis helps to explain why many of my friends feel a sense of disconnect with their roommates. I think we were all expecting our roommates to just be Chinese versions of our friends back home in the States. That many of my friends are not very close with their roommates makes me feel lucky to have such a strong bond with Guo Jiang.  So why do I get along so well with my roommate, who’s 33? Well, why wouldn’t I? After all, he’s really just a conscientious 26-year-old.

* Drinking is truly a big part of business in China. I’ve heard tales of Chinese men getting drunk in order to accept shaky business deals. Moreover, inviting managers, co-workers, and clients to dinner and drinks, while possibly considered bribery in the U.S., is almost the norm in China. It seems to be just a mere extension of the Chinese propensity towards gift giving. My marketing professor has even said to us that many businesspeople in China are literally in physical pain from being forced to eat and drink so much. Truly a hilarious thought… until you call to mind all the other people here slaving away in factories for just enough money to make ends meet.

Chinese pop culture is extremely corny, and I refuse to be convinced otherwise. Someone in China must have declared that smooth jazz can be played anywhere and will automatically make for a serene atmosphere. I kid you not – I’ve heard the same smooth jazz version of My Heart Will Go On (from Titanic) at four distinct locations in China. Moreover, most Chinese dramas revolve around some terribly cheesy storyline that involves a man and a woman who love each other but for some reason, whether it be professional pursuits or parental disapproval, are forced to be apart. Oh please, cry me a river.

A panda munching on some bamboo at the Shanghai Wildlife Zoo.

This past weekend, I went to Hangzhou, a city, not far from Shanghai, renowned for its beautiful natural scenery. One of my stops was at the Lingyin Temple, where I discovered majestic Buddha shrines and statues. Feeling so removed from the Chinese culture, I found it hilarious when I saw people holding incense and bowing down to bronze statues. However, seeing such prepossessing statues and structures that were built more than a thousand years ago made me realize how rich Chinese history really is. When comparing China’s history to that of the United States, which pretty much started in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. is an infant. As such, far fewer common legends and traditions have had time to make their way into the minds of the American people. All in all, I can now understand why people feel the urge to bow down to their beloved Buddhas. At this point, I’d probably just make a funny face if I were next to a George Washington sculpture. But give me a thousand years, and I might very well get down on my knees.

Marybeth and Kehoe, embracing Hangzhou's natural beauty.

My fall break is coming up, and I was all set to head to Bangkok until I heard news of the terrible flooding that has put Thailand in a state of turmoil. Consequently, I decided it would be best to choose another destination (Exhibit A: 20-year-old college students make a responsible decision). Kehoe and I asked my roommate to call the airline to cancel our flight. Later on that day, as he’s on the phone with the airline, I see him whip out a piece of paper from his bag. He takes the phone off his ear and asks, “Can I make up a story? If you have good excuse, you needn’t to pay for cancelling.” Laughing a little, I tell him, “Sure, go ahead.”

After some time, he was put on hold, so I asked him what he had told the airline worker on the other end.

He said he had told them that I had severely injured my head after a skateboarding accident and would be unable to go on the flight. The note that he pulled out of his bag was from his friend, a brain doctor, describing the sensation that one feels after this kind of injury. Yes, that’s right. My roommate did research to prepare for his lying to the airline company. I was in hysterics. Now let it be known that I consider my roommate a very respectable man. That fabricating a story of some skateboarding accident to escape a cancellation fee did not even remotely faze him was just all too much for me. It just goes to show that fibs and falsehoods are not so frowned upon in China. This cultural difference doesn’t surprise me. Fake brands and false advertising surround Chinese people left and right. It’s no wonder that deception is an accepted part of everyday life.

Oh and, if you’re wondering what happened, they ended up transferring Guo Jiang to another department, of which all the employees were on their lunch break. I just paid the cancellation fee.

With Bangkok an idea of the past, this weekend, I’ll now be heading to Seoul. Still not too shabby.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Look at Language

Try to pronounce this phrase…
Gǔde māoníng
Still confused?...
Goo-duh Mao-ning
Have you caught on?
Right now, you might sound like a Chinese person trying to say “Good morning”. If so, great job, you’re exactly right.

At the Shanghai World Expo last year, the Chinese government handed out thick pamphlets filled with English phrases accompanied by Chinese characters to help with pronunciation. It's no wonder why so many people here have horrendous accents when speaking English.

A lot of people have said to me things like “Oh my god, you’re studying Chinese, that’s insane.” Well, I just want to clarify that there is a definite method to the madness that is learning Chinese. What I do is treat Chinese as a Romance language (one that uses the A-Z alphabet) and learn words in pinyin (phonetic writing with tones). At a much slower rate, I learn the characters for these words. For me, memorizing pictures is extremely unnatural, and the fastest way to learn Chinese is to simply stick with what I know.

 In viewing Chinese as a Romance language I notice that pinyin words only end with a, e, i, o, u, n, r, and g. Each character is a one syllable word (the longest possible is 6 letters like chuang or shuang). When you think about English and all the different combinations of letters, word endings, silent letters, and bizarre pronunciations (e.g. curtain, asthma, receipt), you can begin to understand why English may be just as hard to learn for a Chinese person as Chinese is for an English-speaking person.

Chinese has four tones: (1) the tone that you make when you sing “Do-re-mi…”, (2) the tone you make when asking a question (3) the low noise that comes out when you groan, and (4) the tone you make when you say “no!”. In pinyin, they look like this: mā, má, mǎ, mà. Tones, along with characters are definitely the most unnatural and most difficult part about Chinese, but I’m definitely starting to get accustomed to them. I would compare the difficulty of mastering tones to the difficulty of understanding where to place certain emphases in English. For instance, think about the words “mechanical” and “mechanism”. Notice how they’re pronounced differently? Think about how hard mastering this concept is for a non-native speaker.

For me, I find words like lǜse and jùzi very unnatural.  (which means green) sounds like “lyoo” (say “yoo” first and then add the “l” sound to it). If I slip up and say “loo”, I’ve now accidentally said the word for road. Similary, try understanding the difference between zhù (which sounds like “jew”) and  ("jyoo"). While these kinds of differences seem so subtle to a native English speaker, they are simply a natural part of the Chinese language.

One thing that I struggle to understand is why Chinese people often wrongly interchange “l” and “r” when speaking English. They have both “l” and “r” in their frickin’ language. What I do know is that English words that get Chinese-ified often follow this switching of r and l  pattern. For instance, Walmart becomes 沃尔玛 (Wò’ěrmǎ) and Andy Roddick becomes 安迪 罗迪克 (Āndí Luódíkè).

My parents and brother came to visit me this week, and we went to the Shanghai Rolex Masters, where we watched Andy Roddick in his first round victory.

There are actually some Chinese words and phrases that use Roman letters rather than characters. For instance, take a look at the following sentence:
我们唱卡拉OK的时候, 我想让T洫最难看的朋友付钱但是最后我们还是决定AA.
When we went to sing karaoke, I wanted to make my friend with the really ugly t-shirt pay for us all, but, in the end, we decided to each pay for ourselves.
(You have to make sure to pronounce the letters with a Chinese accent though.)

My friends Andrew and Aisha singing a passionate duet. Karaoke in China is extremely popular and a ton of fun. Karaoke clubs offer private rooms for groups, and it's very common to stay for three or four hours.

Learning Chinese forces me to view the world in a much more logical manner. The way that Chinese words are formed is very practical (put different characters to make new meanings), so to learn and remember them I need to adopt a practical mentality. Take a look at the following examples:

Literal Meaning
Power switch

Although learning Chinese means studying a language comprised of strange character pictures and no English cognates (besides some brand names, celebrity names, and loanwords), the above chart demonstrates one of the reasons that I find Chinese fun to learn. Chinese, for the most part, makes sense. And while Chinese people may struggle to remember a word like yogurt, there’s no way I could ever forget sour-milk.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Not-So-Merry Ferry

The word safe in China, as you may know, should be taken with a grain of salt. A country that has constructed hotels in a week’s time, that allows workers to drill pipelines on the sidewalk as pedestrians amble by, and that is infamous for injurious railway collisions certainly cannot truly understand the meaning of safe

“Gladstone, get out of bed, don’t you hear your alarm? It’s been ringing for the last hour!”

Letting out a husky groan, I roll onto my back, reaching my arms way up over my head. I rub my eyelids, making them aware that I must start the day. I had been out until four in the morning the previous night. It was now eight o’clock. I certainly knew what I was in for today.

Taking the elevator down to breakfast, I’m pretty sure I look like death, and it takes the first person I see – my friend Andrew – to confirm this notion.

During breakfast (I couldn’t tell you a single thing I ate or said during that meal), I receive a pleasant surprise. The rain from the previous night was only the beginning of a typhoon that had swept the area. As a result, a level 8 warning was issued, meaning all ferry rides, including ours from Hong Kong to Macau, had to be postponed.

So, I slept. And slept. And slept. It wasn’t until around four in the afternoon that the waters were finally deemed safe to navigate.

Soon after finding my seat on the boat, an attendant came around handing each ferry passenger a barf bag. As I took one from her, I thought “Oh, that’s a nice gesture. Though I doubt anyone will need them”. Boy was I in for a surprise.

I put my ear buds in and turned on my iPod, anticipating a relaxing boat ride to Macau.

30 minutes later, I awake and realize I had drifted off to sleep. I open my eyes and feel a sharp throb in my head. I notice an unsavory scent in the air. I start to sense the rocking side-to-side motion of the vessel. I conclude that this turbulence has been present for quite a while now.

I look out over my seat and find a scene so absurd and laughable that I can only find sanity in a single gratifying thought. I have to write about this in my blog.

All around me I hear the sounds of coughing, crying, and vomiting as people hold onto their barf bags for dear life. I see the attendant frantically running around answering the calls of passengers who demand seconds and thirds of their beloved sickness bags. With every big wave that the boat strikes, a chorus of screams echoes from the upper deck of the ship. I glance over at my friends Mike and Dustin, both of whom are Texas Tech students. As the boat hits a large bump, I hear the roar of “Yee-haw!” fine-tuned with their familiar southern drawl. I imagine devil horns growing out of their nonexistent cowboy hats.

Moving my head to the left, my eyes land on my good friend Kehoe. Pressed in between two Chinese women whose barf bags were no more than an inch from their sickly faces (undoubtedly two of the attendant’s best customers), Kehoe slowly raises his laptop into the air for public viewing pleasure. He has a word document open, and in large typeface it reads “ZHEN DE MA?” [REALLY?]. I burst out laughing.

Kehoe, sandwiched in between two troubled passengers.

The next hour or so is much less comical. For the remainder of the trip, I am overcome with nausea and struggle to fight back the urge to join the many others who have spilled their guts. When the ferry finally comes to a stop, I feel I have pushed my body right up to the limit it can endure.

As we gather outside the Macau customs terminal, I leave my bags with the group and make my way over to the nearest bathroom. I find a urinal. Within a few seconds, a Chinese man approaches a urinal to my right and begins to take a leak. I hear the cacophonous, guttural sound of someone coughing up a loogie. Using my peripherals, I catch sight of the man as he bends slightly forward and opens his mouth. Instead of a large wad of spit arrives a violent hurl of vomit. My mind jumps back with shock but my body remains still, intrigued by this stomach-turning sight. Wrapping up my pee, I skip my usual third shake, wash my hands quickly, and scurry out of the bathroom.

I return to the group and find my bags. I consider the last hour and a half of my life. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. I felt like there was someone to blame. Someone who allowed us all to board that ferry knowing how miserable the ride would be and how so many people would get sick. But then I put things in perspective. I’m totally fine. The whole experience was, after all, pretty hilarious. I start to get excited for Macau. I glance over at my friends. I feel happy. I feel relieved. I feel safe.

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The Bad English Translation Picture Gallery

Thank you to give me free moist towelette

And... there goes my appetite.

Entry from The Encylcopedia Gladstonnica
China drip – Any small drop of liquid that falls on a foreigner in China. Often times, one cannot locate the exact location from which such liquid has fallen, but research has hinted that awnings, drying laundry, and sewage run-offs are among the most likely sources. China drip can also occur indoors, especially after heavy precipitation, in restaurants and in buildings with poor piping systems. While the content of this drip is variable and cannot be known for sure, many people conjecture that water, acid rain, mold, dirt, and rat feces may make up its composition. Natives of China are wholly oblivious to this phenomenon, given that they have experienced such wetness since an early age and are unaware that liquid landing on a person’s face while he is enjoying a bowl of Kung Pao chicken is preventable and should be frowned upon. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Bravery, Egghole, and the Shanghai Belly

I force the lids of my eyes open. Feeling strained, they close again and convince my brain that a nap would be a better idea.  I obey. Leaning my head back against the cushioned seat of a coach bus, I put my mind at ease as the soothing voice of Phil Collins thrums through my ear buds. For a few minutes, I fall into a light doze. Then I feel something brush the top of my hair. I ignore it and continue to sleep. A few seconds later, someone near me lets out a loud snicker. Alright, nap time over, I have to know what’s so funny.  Slowly, my eyelids open. I see three smiling faces, all of them looking at me, including one with a flashing camera. I feel my hair and find a napkin resting on the top of my head. I shut my eyes again.

After a 6:30am departure from campus and a 2-hour flight from Shanghai to Guangzhou, it seemed like everyone was either desperately seeking some rest or acting childish from marked over-tiredness. Our director Wang had planned accordingly: upon our arrival in Guangzhou, we had a group lunch and then were supposed to check into our hotel and have a short rest. However, the hotel wasn’t ready for us yet, and now we were skipping ahead to the next item on our agenda: a visit to the Zhujiang Brewery Company and Beer Museum. Being pissed off about having to go to a brewery was definitely a sad moment in my life.

Greeted at the front door by two casually dressed Chinese men, our group was led into a small auditorium with a big projection screen and podium on the front stage. One of the men, probably in his early fifties, walked on stage and approached the podium. As soon as he opened his mouth, I knew we were in for a treat. He spoke with such a heavy Chinese accent that it wasn’t until his third or fourth sentence that I was actually able to say with certainty that he was speaking English. I gradually became more and more accustomed to his voice and, with the help of visual cues, was able to gather that he was welcoming us to the brewery and would be telling us about the company’s business strategies.

As our host finished up his introduction, a PowerPoint presentation came on the screen, and the second man, who looked slightly younger and had more hair than the first, approached the podium. Ah here we go, this will be better. He began to speak in fast-paced Mandarin. I was perplexed. In our group of 27, there are a mere four kids who are fluent or near fluent. I am certainly not one of them and was wondering if I was going to get much out of this company visit.  The answer came as soon as the man stopped his speech and the older, original speaker chimed in. Oh my god, he’s our English translator?

Accompanied by comprehensive flow charts, a SWOT analysis, and diagrams, the Mandarin speaker rattled on about the marketing strategies of Zhujiang Brewery. Meanwhile, the English speakers were handed hollow explanations like “the management strategy has developed very fast in last few years” or “there are many opportunity for our bravery to increase market share in the egghole industry”. In a moment of eureka a few minutes later, I realized bravery and egghole meant “brewery” and “alcohol” respectively.

I made the most of the situation and decided to treat the presentation as a listening exercise. I was determined to try to do a better job of translating the speaker’s Mandarin into English than the egghole on stage was doing. For the most part, I fell short, but I definitely understood enough to know that the translator was failing to translate many major points that the speaker was making. At one point, I looked back and found that an entire row of my classmates had dozed off. I really couldn’t blame them.

After what felt like forever, the speaker opened the room up for questions. My general sense was that no one would be willing to put the poor guy on stage to trouble by asking a question. I was right, but the speaker mistakenly called on my friend Andrew who had been scratching his head. Not wanting to be rude, he pulled out the first thing on his mind: “I've noticed that Chinese beer is different from American beer in two aspects - alcohol content and size of the bottle. Could you comment on these differences?"

A solid question. But Andrew had asked it much too fast, and the older man on stage was unable to comprehend. Andrew repeats the question again, this time at a much slower speed and in a clearer voice. The man still doesn’t seem to know what’s going on. I close my eyes and let out a groan. Where’s the beer in this bravery…

Here's Andrew.

A whole lot of beer.
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Every street in Shanghai is insane – cars, motorbikes, bicycles, and pedestrians flood every intersection, competing to get to their destination. I’m a natural at Frogger though. I haven’t even lost a life.

There is an important, yet under-researched phenomenon that I have come across in my studies and observations here. I like to refer to it as the "Shanghai Belly". The Shanghai Belly is best characterized as a perfectly round midriff in a male. What makes the Shanghai Belly so fascinating is that only a select number of people possess this trait, but those that do are eager to let others know of their great fortune. Inherent in possessing the Shanghai Belly is knowing how to properly flaunt your special stomach flab. There are two crucial steps in this process (1) roll your shirt up so that it rests on the part of your stomach that extends out the farthest, and (2) act like you have no idea that everyone can see how unattractive your body is.

Here are two prime examples: