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?

Cultural Conundrum #6: Fast Food Delivery

This one isn't so much a cultural conundrum as it is a cultural convenience.

McDonald's delivers!

The delivery person rides around on a scooter. I've also seen a KFC delivery person riding around.

I'm not sure how much extra it costs to have your food delivered. I have yet to eat fast food during my stay here. It's tempting to have a taste of home every once in a while, but I figure fasting from McDonald's and KFC for five months will make them taste that much better when I return to the U.S.

We'll see how I hold up.

Cultural Conundrum #5: Communal Scrap Bowls -- or Tables

Continuing with the food theme, I want to highlight another food-related observation. At many cheap restaurants and at every cafeteria I’ve been to you will find a lovely centerpiece on every table.

This is what I like to call the communal scrap bowl. In China, fish and meat are almost always cooked with the bones. You can imagine how difficult it is eating an entire fish without swallowing any bones — that’s why I rarely eat fish (though the locals are really good at it).

Aside from swallowing bones, there arises yet another problem with eating bone-enriched food:  Where do you put the bones while you’re eating?

Have no fear! The communal scrap bowl is here!

As gross as it seems — and it is pretty gross — it is actually quite convenient. You don’t have to maneuver around bones on your plate. Just toss them in and keep eating. And while you’re at it, you can toss in anything else you don’t want — peppers, napkins, chicken feet and the like.

Every once in a while a lady will come by and empty out the bowl at your table. But most of the time when I sit down, the bowl is filled with some type of goodness.

But what do you do when there is no scrap bowl? Or what if you just don’t feel like using the scrap bowl? Simple — put the bones on the table!

Generally it seems that about 2/3 of the people use the bowl and 1/3 use the table. The same lady that empties the bowls also clears the tables of any bones or other scraps.

When there are many open seats you can just avoid the ones occupied by scraps. But when it’s packed, you just have to set your plate on top of the scraps so that you aren’t looking at them when you eat. Here’s a sneak peak at what was under my plate during a busy day:

To Americans this probably seems a bit disgusting. But to Chinese people it’s a normal part of eating. And that’s how cultures function, right? One culture sees their practices as practical and convenient while another culture views them as strange or repulsive.

It is interesting, though, that Americans generally wouldn’t have a problem looking at bones on a person’s plate sitting in front of them. But as soon as you put them in a bowl in the middle of the table we freak out. Granted, putting them ON the table might be a little different. But a table is just a really big plate if you think about it.

Just saying…

Cultural Conundrum #4: Expiration Dates

When I was here two years ago, I would often stop by a little shop and buy some Chips Ahoy! cookies as a periodic indulgence. After a few weeks, however, I glanced at the expiration date and saw that they were expired by many months--maybe 6 or more. I don't remember.

I stopped buying them. Every day I would check to see if they got new ones. One day they did get some new ones...they were just less expired. I worked up a theory in my head: this shop bought them cheap from some bigger store after that store had to get rid of them.

Eventually, the craving got so great that I decided to buy them anyway. I hadn't gotten sick from the first few packages, and they still tasted good.

Since then, however, I have learned a secret. The date printed on food isn't the expiration date. It's the production date. Finding the expiration date is a 3-step process.

Step 1: Find the date on the package:

It says "20091204." So these cookies were packaged on December 04, 2009.

Step 2: Turn the package over and find the length of time they can be consumed after production.

It's really hard to see, but if you look at the middle of the top half you will see the number 12 followed by some Chinese characters. This says "12 months."

Step 3: Subtract today's date by the production date. If that is less than the period of time on the back--in this case 12 months--then it is safe to eat.

I look at the date on everything I buy. Only once have I seen both the production and expiration dates on the front of the package. It was on a box of Orion pies (an American company).

I don't know why they do it like this here. Maybe it is so that lazy customers will still buy their product if it is expired because they won't want to bother finding the information and doing the quick calculation in their head. I have no idea.

But at least I can rest assured that those Chips Ahoy! cookies I bought two years ago were actually good.

Cultural Conundrum #3: Matresses

Chinese mattresses are HARD. It's not that they are extra firm spring mattresses--they are one solid piece of wood?...concrete?...actually, I'm not sure what's inside.

This is my mattress. There are no springs inside. I can't overstate how hard it is. Sleeping on it at night is identical to sleeping in a sleeping bag on a linoleum floor (the sleeping bag representing the sheets, not the mattress). But before you pity me too much, you should know that these are standard in China.

After talking with a number of Chinese students here, I've discovered that most Chinese people consider hard mattresses better for your health than soft ones. One student told me that once his sister's back was hurting, and the doctor told her the problem was she was sleeping on a soft mattress. Once she changed to a hard mattress, her back was healed.

Some students I talked with said they have spring mattresses at home, but even they still thought that hard mattresses are better for your health--even if they are less comfortable. According to the students I talked with, all the Chinese students here sleep on hard mattresses in the dorms. At home some have spring mattresses, but the majority opinion in China is that hard mattresses are best for your health.

How have I coped with it, you ask? I still wake up at least once a night with numbness in my legs or arms. My nerves aren't used to it yet, I guess. I had a severe backache one day so that I couldn't even wear a backpack.

But I'm getting used to it. I look forward to going to bed. It just takes some getting used to. I'll let you know if I experience any of the health "benefits" they talk about.

Cultural Conundrum #2: Computers, Characters, and Compatibility

In light of my last post, I think it is fitting to give you your one and only Chinese character (symbol) lesson and explain why it will be the only one you’ll be receiving on this blog.

There are some interesting things to learn about Chinese characters, especially how they were formed and why they look the way they do. Additionally, you can learn how to say them (some have multiple pronunciations), and you can see the logic behind how certain words are formed by pairing them together. Unfortunately, with the exception of this post, I won’t be teaching you any of this due to one little problem: your computer.

Most computers purchased in the U.S. don’t come with the Chinese language already installed. Want to know if your computer has Chinese installed? Here’s your test:


If all you see is a row of boxes, then you don’t have Chinese installed on your computer. If you see the characters, then read this post from a different computer if you want it to make sense :)

If you don’t have Chinese installed on your computer, it’s not very difficult to do. You can simply go to your control panel and download the language for free. But since most of the readers of this blog will never need (or want) to read Chinese, I won’t waste your precious time or hard drive space.

But WAIT! If you want to learn something about Chinese characters but don’t want to download anything, there is still hope!

Your computer is sitting there all smug, thinking to itself, “Ha ha, I’m going trap you in your English-centric world, and you’re never going to escape!”

Ah, but you’ve overlooked one small detail, Mr. Computer. The very box that blocks out the Chinese character
IS a Chinese character.

Behold, the Chinese character “kou” (pronounced like the “co” in “Coke”): 口

That’s right. This character is simply a square. But it’s kind of interesting. It doesn’t really scream “Chinese”…but it does scream. And it shouts, too. And talks. And whispers. And kisses. And eats. And hates the dentist—well, actually it likes the dentist, but it just doesn’t know it yet.

You guessed it. “口” is the Chinese character for “mouth.” And it makes sense, doesn’t it? It kind of looks like a mouth. As I mentioned before, you can actually decipher the meaning of some characters by how they look. This is one of them.

口 can also be paired with a whole array of other characters to form words dealing with your mouth, such as “sing” and “speak.”

So, this one time we’ve beaten the system. Your computer can’t stop us. I can write to you in Chinese, and you can understand it—though there’s not much meaning to the sentence “Mouth mouth mouth mouth….” But, hey, why not?


Cultural Conundrum #1: Compliments—Don’t Flatter Yourself

This is the first post of a series called “Cultural Conundrums.” Periodically I will post various cultural observations that Westerners might find interesting, humorous, or downright strange.

Anyone who has spent a substantial amount of time with Chinese people will notice that they are often very hospitable and warm toward others—especially toward foreigners. This takes many forms, but as someone studying Chinese I have found that it most often comes in the form of compliments.

“Your Chinese is amazing!”

“You speak very well!”

“You’re so fluent!”

But there’s a catch. Consider this recent experience to see what I mean:

I needed to buy a SIM card for my phone. So I went to the one place where I knew they sold them. It is a giant multi-story building that sells all sorts of electronics.

I made my way up to the top floor and stopped at one of the booths selling them. In retrospect, I should have reviewed some words that might be helpful to know…but I didn’t. Usually things work out.

LONG story short, I “spoke” with this lady for about 20 minutes trying to buy a SIM card. I say “spoke” because there really wasn’t any
communication happening. I questioned whether she was even speaking Chinese. I could barely even pick out one or two words.

She would give an explanation of some sort of phone plan, and I would tell her I didn’t understand. Then she would re-phrase everything.

“I still don’t understand.”


“I’m so sorry, do you mean _____?”

That’s not what she meant.

This went on and on. I had no clue. She pulled out a paper and did some pointing. I didn’t know the Chinese characters (symbols) she was pointing to. She ran to the other end of the store and grabbed another sheet. She did some more explaining. I still didn’t understand.

Eventually, I just pointed to a plan that wasn’t too expensive and said, “I want that one.” She explained a lot more and I just said, “OK,” not knowing what she said.

As soon as she left to get the card, I heard a voice in English right behind me:

“Your Chinese is so good!”

Apparently, a Chinese guy—about college-aged—arrived at the very end of our “conversation.” We spoke in English with each other for a few seconds, then he left.

I’ve learned by now just to gratefully accept any compliment, no matter how unreasonable or untrue it is. It’s also very common in Chinese culture to appear humble and play down compliments by saying things along the lines of, “Oh, I’m really not that good.” But then there ensues a sort of polite argument trying to determine if the complimentee is worthy enough of the compliment. Thanks, but I’ll pass.

And thus, my conclusion: Gratefully accept compliments from Chinese people, even if they stem from inadequate or faulty evidence—but don’t flatter yourself.