Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Cultural Conundrum #13: T-shirts

Yesterday a thought came to my mind:  "I should buy a Chinese T-shirt." I haven't bought any clothes the entire time I've been here, and I don't necessarily need any new clothes. But I have always thought that a T-shirt with Chinese writing on it is a novel thing to have in the U.S. You don't see them very often.

Then a second thought came to my mind: "I don't recall ever seeing a Chinese person wearing a T-shirt with Chinese writing on it."

So, on my way to and back from lunch I paid attention to the T-shirts everyone was wearing. I took statistics in my head.

I counted 77 T-shirts with writing of some form or another on them. Of these, 72 were only in English, and 5 had Chinese writing on them. Of these 5 with Chinese writing on them, 2 only had the university logo on them (which is just one Chinese character); 2 others had both Chinese and English; and only 1 consisted of more than one Chinese character and no English.

After living here for a few months, this doesn't come as a surprise. Most Chinese students I've talked to here greatly envy Americans. Very, very few would turn down the opportunity to live in the U.S. At times it is frustrating talking to some of them because of the idol-like status some of them have of Americans. I would even go so far as to say that there is an obsession with America among many people here -- especially the younger generations.

One of my friends said when she was growing up she would always complain to her mom that she wasn't white. She didn't like being Chinese. 

There has been a massive infusion of American culture into this society. For example, Chinese people (or at least university students) mostly watch American movies and listen to American music. In fact, most of the people I've asked don't even like Chinese movies.

From my perspective, over half of the advertisements on billboards and posters around the city have Americans (or at least white people) on them. "America" is trendy.

And fashion is no exception. It's trendy to wear clothing with English on it. Much of the time there is some mention of "America" on it (or places in the U.S. like New York, California, etc.). Sometimes the English doesn't make sense at all, but no one knows -- or no one cares.

So, I probably won't be coming home with a Chinese T-shirt. I have yet to see people selling them. I did, however, see a T-shirt of President Obama dressed in a Chinese communist outfit. I'm not sure what they are trying to communicate through that one. I have a feeling it largely depends on whether you wear it here or in the U.S.

Cultural Conundrum #12: Firearms

As I venture outside of campus, it is hard to walk for one minute without passing by a man or woman squatting on the edge of the sidewalk with a sheet spread out in front of them on which an array of carefully arranged items rest. These are what I have dubbed the "sidewalk salesmen" (or "sidewalk salespeople" for the p.c. police).

These items range from electronics, like mp3 players, to hand-made crafts, like bags, to no-one-could-possibly-ever-pay-money-for-this stuff, like used pencils (sold individually, I might add),  to hand-held accessories, like...


When I first came across people selling guns on the street two things came to mind.

1.) This is illegal.
2.) Does everyone have a gun?

As a matter of fact, guns are illegal in China. Citizens aren't allowed to possess guns. Furthermore, hunting is illegal. There are no kinds of permits that allow ordinary people to carry firearms.

What makes these scenes even more strange (and frightening) is that the guns aren't limited to small hand-helds. There are submachine guns, AK-47 assault rifles, and even sniper rifles. During my first few weeks here, every Sunday morning on my way to church I would walk across an overpass lined with people selling guns. There must have been ten different people selling them. After a couple of weeks I decided to take my camera, but they were gone. I figured they had to keep on the move so that they didn't get caught.

Call me gullible, but for over a month I thought all of this was real -- an underground gun market. Then one day I expressed my concern to one of my Chinese friends, only to be comforted by almost uncontrollable laughter. It turns out they are all fake.

At least some of them (like the ones pictured above) shoot BBs (still dangerous in my book). Though, I'm puzzled by the larger guns, such as the sniper rifles. A sniper BB rifle is a pretty hardcore BB gun. Perhaps some of them are just for show.

But one thing is certain:  they all look genuine. Not one of them is painted neon green or orange. Even more surprising is that the main consumers appear to be children. Even after discovering that the guns aren't real, it is still frightening to come across an 8-year-old boy running around with an AK-47.

Still, I can't blame them. I most certainly would have bought one (or two, or three) if I grew up here. 

This boy and his friends all bought their own guns. Actually, even more concerning, their parents probably bought the guns for them. They go on "missions" together.

I wanted to get a picture of them all together, but recently they swapped their guns for roller-blades. Maybe it was just a fad?

But the guns have their own share of adult fans, too. I really wish I had my camera with me two weeks ago. I was walking up a long, uphill street when all of a sudden a grown, 26-ish-year-old man came running full-speed down the middle of the street holding a giant sniper rifle.  China never gets boring.

But some guys think it's a bother to carry around a 4-foot-long gun. After all, they don't conceal well. That is when a glock comes in handy.

Still, I wonder. Could it be that there are legitimate guns secretly mingled with the decoys? Could this all be an underground, international conspiracy to arm the nations most dangerous criminals?

When I tried to take a picture of the guns one man was selling, he freaked out, put his hand over my camera, and started yelling at me. Since that incident, I haven't seen anyone selling guns. Everyone is gone again.

What a coincidence.

On another note, does anyone have any suggestions how to get a small rifle through airport security? Surely they'll believe me when I assure them that it's not real, right?

Cultural Conundrum #11: The "Bottom" Line

A couple of months ago I created a post about children here, mainly highlighting their cuteness. There's much more to them than meets the eye.

...but(t) sometimes it meets the eye. (I'm going to have a hard time not overusing puns in this post -- please "bare" with me)

Most children here have a convenient slit in the back of their pants. Based on the number of children I've seen here, I would guess that four out of five children have it. It might be different in other cities. They don't get much older than this guy.

I've been told that only the wealthy families buy diapers for their children (though many of them still have the slit while wearing diapers).

You can probably guess how it functions. In an earlier post you'll remember that Chinese people use "squatty potties" instead of a "sitting" Western-style toilet. So when children need to go, they just squat and do their business -- anywhere.

This obviously raises a lot of questions, and unfortunately I haven't done enough research to answer them all. But I'll tell you what I know (and have seen).

One day I happened to have my camera in my backpack when I saw the child pictured above. He was playing about two feet outside the entrance to his parents' shop. He was holding a toy gun. It made for a great photo.

As I started to get my camera out of my backpack, the boy squatted, pointed his toy gun straight above him, and "went" (I was seeing this all from the back). For a split second I considered taking a photo because it was so funny with the toy gun and all. But I couldn't bring myself to do it. It's just not the same as those embarrassing potty training photos (or videos) that our parents took of us when we were little. This was a bit too "exposed" if you know what I mean (but still a hilarious image in my mind).

Just as the child finished, the father came out screaming. I didn't stay to watch him clean it up.

Sometimes the parents don't clean it up, especially if it's on a street or sidewalk. Just blame it on the dog.

One time I saw a little girl walking with her friend in the middle of the street. Suddenly she stopped, did her business, and kept on walking. They are so nonchalant about it --  even if there are people all around them.

I've been told that the risk diminishes if the children are being held or if they are sitting (on a lap, in a taxi, in a chair, etc.) because they instinctively do the squatting position when they need to go. Still, I don't think I would be the first one to let that boy with the gun sit on my lap. And I'm not sure what happens when they are really small and can't squat.

This still begs the question:  What about walking around in buildings?

In all of the buildings I've been in, I've only seen parents hold their children. But I imagine they are free to walk around in the house. Perhaps carpeting isn't common? I haven't been in many houses here.

This is called a cultural conundrum for a reason. It still baffles me, and I have a lot of questions. My Chinese vocabulary just isn't good enough to ask them yet.

Stay tuned for a sad story about this little guy. Don't worry. He's OK now.

Cultural Conundrum #10: The Wave

The other day I realized that I had yet to show off my Microsoft Paint skills. When I get the opportunity I like to supplement my blog posts with pictures. But as I've mentioned before, I am very new to the whole photography thing.

But this is not so with Microsoft Paint.

And since today's topic presents a good opportunity to utilize my craft -- and since I'm feeling generous today -- I thought we could move on from photography games to the real deal.

Behold, "the wave": 

In the U.S. this hand gesture conveys such meanings as...

"Get that out of my face."

"You're too close. Scoot back a little bit farther."

"I'm on the phone. Don't bother me now. Leave."

...and the like.

But in China it means the complete opposite. It means...

"Come closer!"


"Is that you over there? You're too far away. Come here! I have something to tell you."


...and the like.

Whereas we turn the palm up and bend our fingers toward us to gesture for someone to come, people here use this gesture. So don't run away if a Chinese person does this wave in your direction. You'll think they don't like you, but they'll think you don't like them.

Cultural Conundrum #9: Safety

There are three main classroom buildings here for international students. Probably the first thing the casual observer notices upon entering one of them is the security guard sitting at the desk placed awkwardly in the center of the room.

In fact, anyone walking by one of the buildings will see the security guard staring back at them through the glass doors. And naturally, the presence of a security guard conjures up feelings of peace, security, and safety.

...that is until you begin to explore.

For example, behold the emergency phone directly across from the security guard's desk.

Looks "safe," right? Now drop your eyes down a little ways.

It's not connected to anything. That makes me wonder if those other two "safe"-looking boxes next to the phone are hollow.

But maybe I'm being too hard on them. Maybe they're working on it. They've probably got some backup plans in the meantime.

*walks up stairs*

See! Look over there! That fire exit is screaming, "Safety!"

The lights on the sign are even on.

What's more, the literal translation of the Chinese is not just "Exit" but "Safe Exit." This makes up for the phony phone.

Wait...what's this?

It's locked. Every day. And there are no other exits. But at least we're safe from burglars.

I want to be careful not to use my university as the representative of all of China. Perhaps my university is just an exception. But I have seen similar kinds of things around here.

For example, one of my friends here has a friend who is a fireman. That fireman saw the fire extinguishers either in the dorm or in this building (I don't remember), and he said they aren't functional at all.

A Chinese person also told me that if someone is trying to break into your home and rob you or hurt you, it is best to take the matter into your own hands (i.e. grab a baseball bat or knife and get to business) because the cops will take way too long to arrive.

However, I have heard that the paramedics will come quickly when called.

All of that said, more than one of my Chinese friends in the States have said that they consider China to be really safe. Maybe the unplugged safety phone, the locked fire exits, and the unusable fire extinguishers are actually signs of how safe China is. After all, only places that have intruders and catch on fire need those kinds of things.

Cultural Conundrum #8: Lightning Round!

Since I've been a little sluggish with posts recently, I figured I owe you an extra-special one this time. So, instead of giving you one cultural conundrum I've decided to give you FIVE!



1. Buses get really full. I mean REALLY full. At full capacity you don't have to hold on to the bars because if the bus makes any sudden stops there is no room for you to move -- as if you're in a bus filled with packing peanuts.

I often laugh out loud when the bus stops at a bus stop and some people have to work their way from the middle of the bus to the door. As of yet I haven't seen anyone else laugh about this. I don't understand why. It's funny!

2. Tap water isn't safe to drink. It isn't treated and tested like it is in the States. Either you boil it or buy bottled water. Many people drink hot water or hot tea.

3. Most people use Kleenexes when they eat because the food makes their noses run. It's strange. Even when I'm not eating spicy food my nose almost always runs here. Either I'm subconsciously being convinced that I need to use Kleenexes because everyone else is, or there's something else in the food that causes it.

4. The toilets here are holes in the ground.

Unless you go to an airport or a really nice hotel, you have to use one of these "squatty potties." You simply squat and do your business. It's also good for building up those quads.

Thankfully, the international student dorm here has Western "sitting" toilets. But I'm fairly certain that as soon as you venture out of the dorm you won't find Western toilets within a 10-mile radius.

And don't ask me what the lavatory in a moving train is like. Let's just say you better make sure you're wearing some old shoes before going in.

5. You can't flush toilet paper down most toilets. Notice that trash can in the picture above?  You guessed it!

Unfortunately, the sewage system can't handle toilet paper in most places. Lots of bad things happen if you try to put toilet paper down the toilet.

And speaking of toilet paper, public restrooms don't give you any. You have to carry some with you wherever you go (or hope that you don't have to go). If you can swallow your pride, random strangers will probably loan you some if you really need it.

Cultural Conundrum #7: Wet Clothes and Ingenuity

Spring has brought a lot of life to Wuhan in the past few weeks. Children are outside playing, older folks are practicing Tai Chi and walking around, gardens are filling with flowers, and trees are filling with...


I like to think of it as a Chinese Charlie Brown Christmas tree. If you've seen the movie you know what I'm talking about.

But why stop with the trees? It's spring for Pete's sake! Those bushes are looking a bit drab...

...that's better.

You see, dryers are a hot commodity here (nothing like a good pun to keep things flowing, I always say). Of the few dormitories on my campus that have washing machines, none has dryers. None of my friends' apartments has dryers. I have yet to hear of a family owning a dryer.

In China -- or at least in Wuhan -- if you want your clothes machine-dried, you have to go to the cleaners. Otherwise, you better hope you have access to a clothesline.

But, as the old joke goes, "How many clotheslines can you fit in a city in China?"

OK, maybe that's not an old joke. Actually, I've never heard that before in my life. But you get the idea. There simply isn't enough room for clotheslines. For example, all of us in my 13-floor dormitory have to share 2 clothes lines about 40 feet long.

But people here are resourceful. If the weather is nice outside you are bound to come across a lot of clothes, some dangling from strange places. And while the trees and bushes are strange, I have seen stranger.

If a power line is within reaching distance of your window, why not? Sure, you might get electrocuted, but what are the chances?