Archive | September, 2011

The family congregates…

22 Sep

Two Saturdays ago, around 8:30 in the morning, I was roused from sleep by what sounded like gunshots. What the hell is going on, I half-consciously thought, and couldn’t it have waited a few hours? I stumbled over to the window, hoping for some extraordinary sight – carnage, a police standoff? – to justify being awoken at such an ungodly hour. All I saw was a group of Chinese people massed a few feet from fizzled-out firecrackers. What is wrong with these people? The Chinese New Year isn’t until January!

It wasn’t the Chinese New Year but, in fact, a different holiday: 中秋节 (Zhongqiujie), the Mid-Autumn Festival. It is celebrated annually on the autumnal equinox, when the moon is at its fullest. The holiday’s closest American analogue is Thanksgiving, in that both were originally harvest festivals and are now occasions for large family gatherings. This year, the festival fell on a Monday (Sept. 12), gifting me and 1.3 billion other souls a three-day weekend.

Other students in my program celebrated with their host families on Monday evening, but for reasons unbeknownst to me, my host family had its pow-wow at lunch on Sunday. And what an affair it was…

I had been video chatting with my American family for 40 minutes when, around 11:10 am, my host father called out, “Luo Yi Fan, zhunbei haole ma?” “Evan, are you ready to go?” The door muffled his voice, but not its aura of urgency. “Xianzai? Keyi xian xizao ma?” I replied. “Right now? Can I take a shower first?” The answer was no. I threw on a collared shirt and jeans, then hustled out to the curb, where a taxi was idling.

I hadn’t expected to be in such a hurry. The previous day, my host mother told me we would leave at noon. Evidently, “arrive” and “leave” were confused in translation.

A few minutes before 12 o’clock, we pulled up to a nondescript, gray stone building in an area of Shanghai I didn’t recognize. I was unimpressed, fleetingly unaware that the structure’s ugly exterior belied its opulent interior. As soon as I stepped inside, I started laughing. Over-the-top would not begin to describe how outrageously decorated this restaurant, Dynasty Food and Drink Chain Business, was.

The palatial "Dynasty Food and Drink Chain Business"

Every flat surface was marble, wood, or gold-encrusted. Mirrors lined ample areas of all walls, which was a nice touch, but frankly unnecessary. Every square inch – floor, ceiling, left, right – was so well polished that I could see my reflection at all times. As we (my host parents and I) wound a labyrinthine path to our personal lunch room – there was no grand dining hall, only individual spaces for large families – some walls appeared to have been constructed from large, immaculate, white marble bricks. Just below the ceiling ran intricately detailed gold friezes, which housed lights that cast a yellow-orange tint, as if to accentuate the excessive amount of gold. It was clear that this unabashedly flamboyant establishment catered to China’s emerging middle class, the relative nouveau riche.

We found the dining room empty, but three more people – my host-aunt, uncle and cousin – arrived a few minutes later. My “cousin” introduced himself as Wilson and we got to chatting. I learned that he was 20 years old, which surprised me, because, having no facial hair, I could have sworn he was 15. He asked me, in Chinese, how many times I had been to China, where I had been, all the standard “getting to know you” questions. The oft-rehearsed answers rolled off my tongue as if I were a fluent speaker.

Wilson and me

After five minutes of small talk, Wilson beckoned for me to follow him. We walked 50 feet, then sat alone in a room whose purpose was ambiguous. Wilson took out a pack of cigarettes, offered me one (I refused), then lit up. “My mother doesn’t like it when I smoke,” he told me. An awkward silence ensued… He spoke first: “Ni chou dama ma?”

大麻… dama… what is dama? I frantically trawled the depths of my brain, searching for the word’s meaning. Oh, it’s marijuana! MARIJUANA?! He was asking, “Have you smoked weed?” Before I could reply, Wilson added, “I really want to try it, just once. Does it feel nice?”
I stammered, weighing how I should respond. “Umm… Uhh…” His eyes telegraphed a want for answers. “Who’s that?” I deflected, pointing out the door to a Caucasian man and an Asian woman walking toward our dining room. “Oh, he’s from Belguim. He’s married to my aunt. We should go back now.” Continue reading

A finger on the pulse of Chinese society

21 Sep

Sorry about the recent lapse in blog posts. I’ve been busy with life, the Internet at my home stay hasn’t been working recently, and I’ve been organizing a trip to Tibet, for which I leave in a few weeks. Without further ado:

To gain insight on current events in China, there are select blogs and news sites I’ve made a habit of returning to. James Fallows of The Atlantic and Evan Osnos of The New Yorker, whose sites are listed in the “blogroll” at right, always offer superb analysis. The China Beat, full of dispatches from both Western and Chinese academics, is another excellent resource, so much so that it is inaccessible in China without a proxy or VPN. I extract a plethora of knowledge from these sites, yet one could accuse the authors of writing from an ivory tower. Their interviewees are not always “people on the street,” or your “average Joe.” The subjects are more often professors, dissidents, artists: people in the public eye.

That is why I like to supplement my “hard news” media diet with pages like Chinasmack, which translates memes and trending topics from the Chinese equivalents of Facebook and Twitter. Stories that are slow to take hold in Western media, and off-limits to mainland Chinese media, are heatedly discussed on social networks. This summer, for example, a Communist Party press secretary’s tone deaf response to the horrific crash on the Beijing-Shanghai high speed train line became an instant classic thanks to “netizens” who mocked and repeated his words. Two weeks after reading about the press secretary online, an article appeared in The New York Times.

Chinasmack and other sites are like a fingers on the pulse of Chinese society. They offer an unrivaled “on-the-ground” perspective. One translation that recently caught my eye, while not especially controversial, was a magazine piece that profiled the African expat community in Guangzhou, one of three major cities (along with Hong Kong and Shenzhen) in the Pearl River Delta

The presence of Chinese soft power in Africa, through investment, is well documented (and worrying for the United States), but I had never before come across the inverse of that story – African merchants in China – and I doubt I’ll be reading about it in Western media any time soon. Enjoy this excerpt and please continue on to the full, if imperfectly translated, story:

As Chinese companies have entered Africa to find resources, African businessmen have also come to China, “the world’s factory”. Businessmen ship cheap goods to Africa, where 50 far-away African countries quickly consume these daily consumables that can’t be produced in their own countries. At the end of the 90s in the 20th century, the first batch of Africans came to Guangzhou, their first stop being Canaan clothing market [Clothes Trading Center]. Now, however, with Canaan clothing market as the center, many goods for export markets have sprung up in the surrounding one kilometer area. The people of Guangzhou have gradually come to call this area “Chocolate City”.

“Campus safety” – the joys of Chinglish pt.1

8 Sep

I’ve been a bit busy these past few days. Chinese language class started Tuesday (about which I hope to post soon) and today I toured the migrant school where I will begin teaching English next week. In case you were wondering, Yes, the school is filled with adorable little Chinese children.

In the meantime, please enjoy the photos below, from Monday’s “opening ceremony” for international students. For the first hour, it was an absolute snoozer. One by one, the head of the foreign students department, the university president, and the president of the foreign students’ union took his or her place in front of the lectern (left), then delivered a speech that, in and of itself, was reasonably concise. The problem lay to the right: three translators – English, Japanese, and Korean – who interpreted every speech through a microphone, two or three aggravating sentences at a time. It felt like I was on a cruise ship where announcements have to be repeated in five different languages.

D'Artagnan and the Three Stooges

The oratory finally concluded, it was then, to the audience’s silent chagrin, time for a “campus safety talk” with a local Public Security Bureau officer, who required a translator (thankfully just English) as he spoke only Mandarin. The following 45 minutes were, well, interesting…

Pay particular attention to the burglar illustration

Critical thinking vs. rote memorization, crystallized

A few slides were changed too quickly for me take pictures, but they included great lines like:

  • “Nowadays, the technology of stealing is advanced that may not be imagined”
  • (Regarding internet scams) “You had better choose some famous websites for your shopping on the net”
  • “The method of asking the police for help”
  • (In case of emergency) “Remember the feathers [features] of criminal and protect yourself”

As you may have noticed in the title, this post constitutes part one in an ongoing (never-ending?) series on “Chinglish,” the sublime butchering of Chinese-to-English translations. Stay tuned for more to come.

Settling in

5 Sep

The Puxi side of Shanghai, as viewed (by someone else) from the Lupu Bridge

“I see you driving ’round town with the girl I love and I’m like…”  Having departed Pudong Airport minutes earlier with a representative from my gap program, I now sat in a taxi, destined for my new home, listening to a taste of the old home: Cee-Lo Green, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Michael Jackson. While the rep, Jin Dan, and I made sporadic small talk in Chinese and English, the driver mercilessly fast-forwarded through his defective (and undoubtedly bootleg) CD of pop hits; he had little affection for slow ballads. But I wasn’t bothered. In fact, the up-tempo songs were a pitch-perfect match for my mood. 15 or so hours removed from America, watching low-rise apartments tinted orange by the late-afternoon sun whisk by, no amount of fatigue could dull my excitement to be in Shanghai.

After 45 minutes, the taxi abruptly pulled to the curb. I looked out the windows. Grocers, restaurants, newsstands, convenience stores, establishments of all varieties lined both sides of the wide, four-lane boulevard, Jinshajiang Road. Above the frenetic street rose apartment buildings five or six stories high. This would be home for the next three-and-a-half months.

Soon after stepping out of the car, I spotted five middle-aged Chinese women standing across the street, one of whom had to be my host mother. Sure enough, one perilous jaywalk later, I met my host-mother, the four other moms and Mason, a fellow “gapper” from San Francisco who had arrived a few days earlier. Mason took one of my bags while I carried the other up a flight of stairs to a second-floor apartment that overlooks Jinshajiang Road.

I spent a few minutes freshening up, then Mason took me on a tour of the East China Normal University (ECNU) campus, a five minute walk from my apartment. We entered at the main gate, an imposing white stone arch where a handful of policemen stood not-so-vigilantly, and through which motorized traffic passes. Beyond this edifice we walked straight, down the main campus road, as Mason identified points of interest. We ended up at the office the gap year organization, CIEE, maintains on campus, where I was introduced to the staff and teachers. In the adjacent room, I examined the small library of China-related books CIEE maintains. A sign on the cork board kindly requested that I, an international student, not show any books to Chinese students, as some of the material is banned in China.

When I returned home for dinner, around six o’clock, two new faces had arrived: my host-father and his (I think) college-age son, Dawei. I was happy to have Dawei, who speaks a little bit of English, end the uncomfortable silences that punctuated the dinner conversation whenever I had trouble unraveling what was being said or asked. My host-father, one in a long line of Chinese men to wear boxers and little else around the house, also tried to accommodate my months-dormant “Chinese brain” by talking slower and using different phrasings, but to no avail. After dinner, animatedly pantomiming how to operate the multiple doors and locks that lead into the apartment, he had more success getting the point across, though the words were still incomprehensible.

By this time, the jet lag I had so far evaded became palpable, the need for sleep overwhelming. I ventured to my bedroom, where suitcases lay on the floor untouched. The stifling Shanghai humidity as well as a desire to “do as the Romans do” compelled me to strip off extraneous clothing and slip under a single cover sheet. As I lay in the darkened room, a chorus of car horns, the rumble of mopeds, the loud jests and jubilant cries of ordinary people, the pulse of a city; they were all audible. For the first time in memory, I drifted to sleep listening not to one heart, but two.

欢迎您, Welcome! Or: You know you’re going to China when a woman is wearing a polka-dotted hat with Mickey Mouse ears

1 Sep

And so the journey begins…

Thanks for visiting the SinoFile! Over the course of my gap year, I’ll be using this space to chronicle my experiences in and observations of China: the people, the culture, the language, and more. Between now and December, I am studying Chinese at East China Normal University in Shanghai and teaching English at a school for migrant children, while living with a Chinese family. After the New Year, I will begin an internship at an English-language publication (to be determined), also in Shanghai. In addition to “sinofilic” posts, I hope to pepper in entries about current events, sports, television, and other topics. These may be tangentially related to China, or not at all.

I’ll do my best to write on a regular basis but if you have questions, comments, a seed of an idea, please let me know. Perhaps you’d fancy guest-writing a post? Let me know. To paraphrase a former Chinese teacher paraphrasing Confucius, “Isn’t it a pleasure to have friends from all over the world?”

Until next time…

-Evan