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The China Handicap

bad-golferI am a golfer. Or rather, I play golf. No, that’s still too strong. Let’s just say that, on occasion, I take a few swings at a little white ball with graphite-composite sticks in a feeble attempt to sink said ball in a small hole you cannot see. My sliced drives move left to right faster than Hillary Clinton at a Nebraska town hall meeting and I have the putting touch of a one-armed stevedore just reaching the peak of a quintuple espresso buzz. And like everyone else, I pay dearly for the privilege.

Serious golfers say they love golf “because it offers a great lesson in the game of life.” They claim it teaches patience and improves mental toughness. It’s a game of the mind, not body.  Yadda yadda yadda. I thought it was nothing more than an opportunity to get some fresh air and learn new swear words.

In fact, golf is very unlike life, mainly because of the “handicap”, a numerical calculation of one’s playing ability, or in my case, the lack thereof. A low-handicapper is a very good golfer and, in a competition with a high-handicapper he must spot that less-gifted person a certain number of strokes on the round. The theory here is that it evens the playing field and allows golfers of unequal abilities to compete as equals.

I don’t get it. Why would unequals think that they could compete? If you can sink a 40-foot putt on an angled glass surface with a wicked cross wind during an earthquake while I cannot get a ball fitted with a GPS downhill with a tailwind through a three-foot pipe into a manhole, well, I conclude you are the “better” golfer and deserve to “win”. The handicap, therefore, is an irrational, truth-destroying practice. Postmodernism was embraced by golfers long before tenured professors.

Then I got to thinking … my golf game is a lot like my life in China: the misunderstandings, misinterpretations and bad decisions I make in China are uncomfortably close to my stunted attempts at driving, chipping and putting. And like my golfing partners, my Chinese friends and colleagues shake their heads sadly and just hope I don’t maim someone with an errant shot. So what if I was allowed a “China Handicap”? Something that makes me equal and able to compete on a more level playing field in a place where, even after all these years, I find my mental capacity inversely proportional to my height when it comes to really understanding China.

For example, I should be entitled to a few strokes when shopping at the street market. Rather than be subject to the here-comes-the-foeigner-lets-double-the-price game, the “real” cost of the goods would flash above the proprietor’s head as well as the price paid by the last three locals. As a result, I would neither get ripped off nor walk away from a good deal fearing I was still getting ripped off.

With a China Handicap my emotional outbursts about the traffic, frustrating bureaucrats and my landlord would disappear. Like the locals, I could maintain Buddha-like calm in such situations. My China Handicap would be Ritalin to my Tourette’s, my emotional Teflon against China’s daily frustrations.

A China Handicap would eliminate the tones in spoken Chinese, without changing my ability to be understood. Currently, when I speak Chinese, the listener often gets either faithful reproduction of the tone or accurate use of the tone, but not both at the same time. I was told once that my Chinese sounded like I was from Sichuan province. I took that as a compliment until I learned that the Sichuanese have a reputation of using the wrong tones in their Mandarin. Sure, the loss of tones would rob the language of its melodic lilt (when spoken by a gifted elocutionist), but at least I would stop confusing “mother” with “horse”. The trade-off is not a bad one.

As for the Shanghai dialect, it would automatically be converted to perfect Mandarin when my China Handicap is applied, whereas now it sounds to me like a bird who’s tongue has been numbed while their beak shifts into overdrive.

My China Handicap would also convert written Chinese to phonetics, eliminating the inconvenient need for studying and memorizing characters. Out go the flashcards, thumb-worn dictionaries and nightmares of sitting exams on a Whoopee Cushion in front of itchy-finger-triggered Tang Dynasty poets armed with squirt guns filled with lime Jell-O.  Don’t ask.

You know what, I deserve a China Handicap, gosh darnit! I deserve to be judged less harshly. I should be able to compete equally with my betters without actually having to put the time in, working hard to improve my game here.  I need to stop thinking of myself as a loser. With a China Handicap I would be better than what I am now: commercially-challenged, emotionally-immature and linguistically-stunted. Is that too much to ask? If you agree, let me know. It’s tee time this weekend and I need to complete a foursome …

Babble on – the challenge of making sense in China

HypermarketA friend of mine was supposed to meet me for lunch in Shanghai the other day, but he was late. Typical. His mother says that he was born two weeks after his due date and that set the pattern for the rest of his life. But when I called his mobile phone I heard a cryptic message saying, in English: “The mobile phone subscriber you dialed is power off now.” Yeah … that about describes him: totally “Power Off.”

For me, one of the many joys of living in China is experiencing the cacophony of languages, a daily grab-bag of accents and dialects. I’m never sure what is going to come out of someone’s mouth or even what it might mean when it does come out. It is in part my own fault for traveling so much. Just when I get used to the bird-talk of Shanghai taxi drivers, I’m off to Beijing where they speak with mouths full of marbles and then to the tonal loop-de-loops of Hong Kong where trying to follow a simple conversation makes me airsick.

English, as it is used in China, may be source of frustration, but it also provides plenty of fun. And far be it from me to criticize anyone who speaks English as a second language. I am an American and we can’t even speak our native tongue properly, so anyone that tries for two or more deserves my admiration and awe.

But when it comes to official announcements and public messages in China, it seems to me that more attention should be paid to correct usage (and common sense). The flight announcements at the airport in Shanghai always begin with: “Announcing a flight from Shanghai to …” and proceed to name the flight number and destination. But why announce the departure location?  I know I am in Shanghai because I am sitting in the Shanghai airport. If I wanted to leave from Beijing but was sitting in Shanghai, I would have bought a ticket with that new airline, the one that is able to fly outside the time-space continuum (I think it’s called Quantum Air).

While I’m on the subject of air travel, here’s another term I hear frequently: “equipment reallocation” as in “we regret to inform you that the flight will be delayed because of ‘equipment reallocation.'”  I assume it means that my plane is being “reallocated” to another route and not being turned into a youth hostel; or a two-lane bowling alley; or a very thin Karaoke bar. If so, I would prefer to hear the honest, if brutal, truth: “Attention, we are pleased to announce that flight number 5 will now be on time because we have reallocated the airplane from somewhere else and have given it to you. Look over at gate 10 and you will see the poor schlubs without an airplane who have been told that it has been ‘reallocated.’ You should feel vastly superior to them. Altogether now … nyah-nyah-na-boo-boo!”

Nyah-nyah-na-boo-boo may not be found in Webster’s, but then a lot of what I see written in Shanghai falls outside the norm. Especially in advertising. I once saw a banner that was wrapped around a building; in English, in three meter tall type, touting a new restaurant called “Bread and Butter.”  However, the syllables of the last word had been separated so, when viewed from one angle, it said “Bread and Butt.”  Yes, excessive starch will cause one to gain weight, but do they need to rub it in?

At a local hypermart, I remember seeing two signs posted above a range of disposable goods — paper plates, wooden chopsticks and the like. The sign in Chinese said: 一次性用品, literally “one-time use items”. However, the English sign said: “A Time Sex Thing” (the character 性 is sometimes used to refer to sex). I guess the translator had been taught that sex sells.

In the end, the real heroes of this story are the well-meaning citizens of this great country – my friends, neighbors and colleagues – who are subject to the abuse we foreigners rain on their beloved language. I constantly mess up my tones and call someone’s mother a horse. I never remember the difference between “orphanage” (孤儿院 gu er yuan) and “kindergarten” (幼儿园 (you er yuan), a distinction that is important to most parents. I also can never remember the difference in writing “buy” (买) and “sell” (卖), bringing no end of frustration to my financial controller who does know the difference between “revenue” and “expense”.

So it works both ways. Chinese amuse themselves with the linguistic mistakes of foreigners, and vice versa. Such is human nature. For which I am truly sorry. But a sign I saw in a local teahouse sums it up best: “Humanistic refreshments cannot usually be located but here”.

A China Aural Fixation

Not so very long ago, I was sitting in a Chinese railway station awaiting my train which, like the first snowfall, the Second Coming and Godot, was taking its sweet old time. Worse still, I was experiencing a throbbing headache.

Then suddenly an announcement came over the loudspeaker system at a tone that sent aural icepicks through my eardrums: “Miffle babble gribble, mao mao mao, glizzzbo hemmat.”

I strained, along with my fellow travelers, to understand what the announcer was saying. I asked a local man sitting next to me if he understood it, but like me he found it nearly incomprehensible. Nevertheless he was able to catch something to the effect that the train to Miffle was going to be slightly glizzzbo and that passengers should mao mao mao. Meanwhile the buzz and screech of the station’s public address system seemed to announce the opening ceremonies of the Migraine Olympics getting underway in my skull.

But it wasn’t the fact that I couldn’t understand just what the heck the announcement was saying that bothered me … no, it was the simple annoying sound of it.  Call it hyper sound sensitivity or Adult A.D.D. but I find it nearly impossible to concentrate when bombarded by things like this.  As I sat and suffered the agonies of the damned, nowhere nearer to my destination, I wished for transportation of another sort, the ability to separate myself from the surrounding mayhem and reach a Zen-like state of calm and objectivity.  Since I arrived in China many years ago, I have, on occasion, nearly reached this out-of-body state of enlightenment, only to be brought crashing down to earth because of some ear-splitting sound that seems unique to China. But I wonder still how such noise can wreak such havoc with me, knocking my choo-choo train of thought clear off its tracks. What’s more, why do I seem to be the only one with an aural fixation here?

I could catalog for you, dear friends, alphabetically and by decibel, the list of obnoxious sounds in this otherwise fair land. Travel north in the winter and listen to the chest-clearing hawk-spit of a Beijing taxi driver. Like Siegfried and Roy pulling a white tiger out of a Ming vase, northerners in China can haul a lung cookie up from the depths of their very soul. Particularly during wintertime when the coal dust hangs like carcinogen curtains, the hills are alive with the sound of mucus and I shiver to my core to hear it.

While one expects that sound systems in older railway stations and airports – many of them seemingly dating back to the Han dynasty – will not be of high quality, it seems fair to assume that those in the brand new train stations and airports dotting the land would be somewhat better. Bad assumption. While an architectural wonder, the Shanghai Pudong airport has a P.A. system that makes the announcer sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher on valium or a flatulent tuba player. The vaulted Tinker Toy ceilings play ping-pong with the sound, further frustrating the already confused traveler with echoed repetitions of garbled phrases.

The sound systems that do work in China work all too well. I am, of course, referring to those found in supermarkets and hypermarkets. The average retail shopping experience here is suffused in music, usually turned up so loud that the speakers buzz. The result is often a comical interaction between shoppers and assistants, both trying to hear each other above the din and, failing that, resorting to hand motions worthy of Marcel Marceau at a liturgical dance conference. The other day my pantomime of “where is your organic ginger?” to a shop assistant at the local market gathered quite a crowd (and, if my agent can pull it off, I will be appearing at several other local supermarkets in the Puxi area in the coming months … stay tuned for dates and times).

Many foreigners have difficulty grasping the melody of the Chinese language, the odd phonemes and tones hitting our eardrums at uncomfortable trajectories. I have been able to appreciate only some of the music of the Chinese language – the soft, womanly lisp of Suzhou natives, for example, or the marbled mumbles of the Heilongjiang industrial worker. However, here in my beloved city of Shanghai, the fingernails-on-a-blackboard dissonance a group of 53 year-old women speaking the local dialect is enough to drive me around the bend. First of all, this model of Shanghai citizen does not seem to come equipped with a volume control and yet has the Super Multi-Tasking chip installed, enabling the group of them to all talk at the same time, in escalating volume levels. Most disturbing is when a group of these ladies are working as shop assistants in the aforementioned retail environment and are in vociferous competition with the store’s sound system. The Wall of Sound this forms makes front row seats at a Screaming Death Monkeys heavy metal concert seem like an afternoon society tea at the local library.

But if I were to be brutally honest, the most unsettling sound of all in China, to my ears, is the complaining foreigner rehashing the litany of improvements they would introduce: the tourist on public sanitation; the expat commuter on traffic; members of the current US administration on currency control. If the chorus singing from the ‘What China Needs Is … ‘ hymnbook is bothersome to my ears, imagine what it must do to those of our hosts. So as for me?  Guilty as charged. I hope that only the most graceful and forgiving of them are reading this post.

What’s in a name?

I was at a restaurant the other day and wanted to get the server’s attention. Now the standard etiquette at food establishments in China – particularly local ones – is that you are allowed (nay, even encouraged) to raise your voice and yell for service, yell as if you were three pints into a prime day at the Hong Kong Sevens. So, employing vocal chords that have been known to shatter glass, I shouted “Hey…xiao jie” and a young lady immediately appeared at my table.

To differentiate myself from the other louts screaming for the wait staff, I thought it wise to establish a degree of intimacy. Xiao jie (“Miss”) is too formal, and I looked to her name tag. I discovered her name was 57103. “Hmm…” I thought to myself, “this is interesting; a moniker not normally found in the ranks of the venerated Zhang’s, Wang’s and Liu’s of the lao bai xing” (literally, “old hundred names”).

How sad, in a land where naming people is such an arduous and time consuming task, to be reduced to a number. This is a minor tragedy, I thought. Chinese names are beautiful, rich in symbolism and possess a sense of history that places the bearer securely within the culture. I’m sure that the waitress’s parents took great care to choose a suitable name for their daughter. They likely searched through the family records, considered the time of her birth, and came up with a name that reflected their hopes and dreams. What infamy, then, to be reduced to number 57103.

Finding an appropriate Chinese name for a foreigner is, perhaps, even more difficult than it is for the native-born. Many opt for the easy way out – simply translating the sound of their name into Chinese phonemes, with interesting results. I knew a guy named William Wasserstrom, a name that is tough enough in English but was rendered ridiculous in Chinese: Wei Li Ya Mu – Wa Su Er Su Tu Mu. People had to take several breaths and pack a lunch to get through that name. It sounds like a Shanghainese rapper with Tourette’s Syndrome. Then, too, the characters used to render a name like that are devoid of meaning. If one were to translate old William’s name, literally, it would mean “Future Power Oh! Wood – Wow! Custom Ear Revive Earth Eye.” Frank Zappa couldn’t have named a kid worse. Most foreigners don’t mind, but if you want to belong here then you should find a “real” name.

My Chinese name was chosen by a committee formed by several of my closest Chinese friends. Their mission: to find a name that matched my personality. The most appropriate, “Donkey-Face-Monkey-Boy”, does not translate well in Chinese so instead they chose 高 德凯 or Gao Dekai. Gao is a traditional family name, but it also means “tall” and alludes to my height. De means “morality” and Kai, “victory”, which says something about my successful struggles with sin (or, more likely, pokes fun at my failures with same). In short, Gao Dekai is a nice, solid, very Chinese name.

On the other hand, some of my Chinese friends and acquaintances have been given unfortunate names in English. In the days when I was a teacher, one class boasted a Lincoln, a Washington and a Hemingway. Lincoln and Washington failed their history class, and Hemingway got a “D”’ in English Composition.

Others sport meteorological monikers: I know a Snow, a Rain and even a Breeze (and I’m acquainted with a fellow who should be named Earthquake for his ability to kill a conversation at a party). I know a Pony Wang, who fancies himself an urban cowboy, and a Moonbeam Liu which sounds rather sexy, but not for a guy, which he happens to be. Another acquaintance, Dolphin Xiu (aka “Flipper”), is exceptionally smart and happy-go-lucky — his name seems to fit. And for all I know he might like to swim and eat seafood. I had a client once whose family name was Gu and he chose the English name Green. I’ll pause a moment and let you figure that one out.

Every once in a while, my Chinese friends ask me to help choose an English name for themselves or even their child. This makes me feel very uncomfortable. The responsibility is too great and a wrong choice can mark a person with bad karma for life. I have trouble choosing a necktie, never mind something as serious as a name.
I once knew a young man surnamed Wang, who approached me one day and said: “Mr. Kent, I want you to help me pick an English name.”

“OK,” I said, my voice aquiver, “have you anything in mind?”

“Well, I like the name Satellite,” he said, with a proud grin.

“Um… ‘Satellite Wang’? Are you sure about that?” I asked.

“Yes. Satellites are very modern and are very strong. And I want to be modern and strong. Besides, my best friend said it was a good name for me.”

“Who is your best friend?” I asked, fearing the answer.

“Oh, his name is Auditorium Li.”

You know, somehow 57103 sounds like she should be counting her blessings.

Isn’t it ironic?

Of all the mind-numbing, pride-swallowing, ulcer-inducing challenges I face in China every day, being misunderstood is probably the greatest one. I’m not talking about basic Chinese language skill – I’m all too aware that, despite the polite compliments of my hosts, my Chinese is roughly the equivalent of a primate using sign language (hence the name of this blog). No, I’m referring to the difficulties arising from the cultural context of meaning, the attitudes, motivations and mental gymnastics behind the words. I usually can understand what someone is saying in China but I am often confused as to what they mean.  In short, I get the lyrics but not the music, the character behind the character that is speaking that makes meaning, well, mean!

Call me unique (or odd, strange and socially inept, if you must), but a big part of the character of my communication style is defined by the liberal use of sarcasm and irony. These two qualities seem in short supply in China, which is why I’m so often misunderstood. When I employ sarcasm and irony my intention is to be humorous. But, as my teenagers so often remind me, what I find funny is often not funny to other people, and this is especially true in China.  The Chinese sense of humor, it seems to me, is founded upon an altogether different base. Rather than sarcasm and irony, Chinese humor is often based on puns and historical allusion. This would make sense because the Chinese language is built from a limited set of homonyms and the Chinese people have several thousands of years of history to draw from.

But you know what? Being funny in China is a lot of hard work because both the humorist and the audience must be both clever and subtle. This is why I far prefer irony and sarcasm for the simple reason that it does not require me to be all that clever or subtle. What’s more, my preference allows me to save face if my comments fall flat. For example, say I see a movie with a friend. I think it stinks but I am not sure whether he agrees:

Me: “Well…that was a great movie!” (said with a slight sneer)

Friend: (picking up on the possible irony) “Really? I loved it!”

Me: (backpedaling furiously so as not to offend with an original opinion) “No … I meant it … great film. Very, very moving. I meant that the popcorn was inferior.”

See the beauty in this? No commitment, no brain cells used, nothing to offend or annoy. Of course, there’s no original or creative thinking here, but originality and creativity are far over-valued. Those of you who’ve eaten Western-style fast food know that “creative” is only used by their ad executives and “original” is a style of deep-fat fried chicken.

Which brings me back to my point: attempting irony in Chinese just does not work. I have tried repeatedly to introduce it into my speech but all I end up with is a blank stare from my erstwhile listeners. However, behind the blank stare I can guess what my conversational partner is thinking: “If I just maintain eye contact, maybe he will think I understand and am even interested in what he has to say …”

But this, I think, is so sad and is such a waste of good material because in my humble opinion, China is rich in ironic situations.

Take the sidewalks, for example, which are largely unused because folks prefer to walk in the middle of the street in China. Why don’t they use the sidewalk, you might ask? Well, for one thing, sidewalks here are often difficult to navigate because of the trees planted smack in the middle of them. To negotiate the sidewalk, then, requires the elasticity of a Super-G Olympian. Lose focus for a minute and you become an instant tree hugger, despite any lack of concern for the environment you might have. The sidewalks here are not intended for pedestrians; rather, they are for bikes, scooters and the occasional automobile, as well as Tibetans selling jewelry. The irony is that the middle of the street is often the safest place to walk, primarily because everyone expects you to be there. Ironic? Just a bit.

Then there’s the roundabout – a traffic management system that originated in the UK – designed to ease the traffic flow entering an intersection, simultaneously, from four directions. However, in the Chinese version of a roundabout, the system produces chaos where drivers merge like a lead-footed Ray Charles driving in a proton accelerator on a triple espresso buzz. The roundabout at the confluence of the Lupu bridge exit and the North-South viaduct in Shanghai, to cite but one example, requires traffic lights (and the occasional traffic cop) at rush hour to establish even a modicum of sanity.  Kinda defeats the purpose of a roundabout and makes the situation … hmmm, I don’t know … maybe kind of ironic?

Signage in China also provides the ironist with good material. Right next to the elevators outside of my office, there is a large “no smoking” sign. And next to the sign is well-used ashtray.   I saw a sign recently in a toilet stall – in both English and Chinese – that says “Electrical toilet, please do not defecate.” And I’ve seen many a family picnicking in the park next to the “Keep off the grass” sign. How can one look at things like that and not think that China is the epicenter of exaggeration; the summit of satire; the crown of contradiction; the intensity of incongruity; the steeple of sarcasm; the vertex of wit (yea … I couldn’t think of a superlative starting with “w” either).

In the end, however, the true irony is that I may be completely wrong about the Chinese; maybe they are masters of irony and sarcasm after all. Not the broad and obvious American sort, but the clever and subtle type. Why else would a culture that boasts a long, rich and varied history insist that any foreigner who can put two Chinese words together and use chopsticks well enough transport a bit of food to his mouth be called a “China Expert”? Ironic?  Yea … just a bit.


The Great Kiss-off

Most Americans live under the delusion that we blend in well in foreign cultures. We think that because we come from a culture that, at least the white majority, call a “melting pot” that we are, by definition and constitution, “multi-cultural” and, therefore, “any-cultural.” As a card-carrying American (VISA card), I can tell you that this is wrong. While many of our distant ancestors might have come from somewhere else, the remnants of cultural sensitivity have long left the American cultural gene pool; indeed, they have showered, deflated their floatie toys and returned home. The truth is that most Americans, no matter their ethnic DNA, have regressed. We have drifted to the American cultural mean and are therefore easily identified, particularly here in China. We walk tall, talk loud and surgically remove most of the tones from our spoken Chinese.

That said, most Americans are genuinely interested in what makes other cultures different …not that we necessarily will respect those differences, but gee-whiz, it is sure neat to know what they are. And what they are is very different from us. We are fascinated with the unique ways of foreigners because Americans have a generally-uniform culture. It is spread across 5,000 km of country and we all speak, roughly, the same language (except for members of our previous presidential administration who tend to drop vowels and add syllables when discussing the situation in Eye-rak).

Then again, maybe our interest in other cultures is all a sham, nothing more than an attempt to assuage our collective guilt for foisting fast food and Britney Spears on the rest of the world (being responsible for both “Hit Me Baby One More Time” and a global addiction to trans-fatty acids is enough to make anyone desperate, I suppose). Whatever the reason, Americans are morbidly interested in how other groups of people behave, and how they’ve managed to retain their identities.

So for my American clients and friends that are making their first trip to China, I give them a crash course in “what to do” when they arrive. First, I tell them to present and receive business cards with both hands, always offer a guest something to drink and to drive their motorcycles rapidly on crowded sidewalks. The purpose of such cultural niceties is that it has meaning for both parties. The gesture of respect shown by offering your business card with two hands means a great deal to the Chinese (and at the same time it helps lessens the chance your card will drop on the floor which is definitely not a sign of respect).

My frustration, however, comes when foreigners start using cultural norms from our host country (China) when interacting with each other. For example, when I meet another foreigner and he hands me his card with two hands. C’mon … just get your card to me any way to you can: slide it across the table, flip it, fold it into a million paper cranes and fly it over, I don’t care. I am not Chinese so the two-handed thing means nothing to me and I don’t really need to know that you know how to do it, thank you very much.

Things get really sticky when two foreigners from different cultures interact here, particularly when it comes to greetings. Meeting for the first time is pretty straightforward: smile, shake hands; get over the one-hand / two-hand business card thing and then you are home free. But develop a social relationship and things get hairy, especially between Americans and Europeans.

I think I speak for all Americans when I ask my European friends: “What’s up with the kissing thing?” When do you do it? How do you do it (on the left first, on the right)? And it seems to me that no actual contact is made between lip and cheek – its more of an air kiss, is that correct? And I am right in assuming that French kissing, despite the name, is not appropriate when greeting a Gaelic friend? I’m just asking, here.

Like I said, this is where things get sticky. Where I come from – the frigid northern portion of the US – the part of me that is “me” begins about 21 inches from my physical body (or 53 cm for the rest of the world that insists on using a system of measurement that actually makes sense). You get inside of that me-space and, unless I know you very well, I feel a bit uncomfortable. Mainly, because I don’t know where those lips have been (and I really don’t want to know so don’t bother explaining).

This is the month when we Americans remember our independence by shooting off fireworks made in China, watching a baseball game with Korean athletes and purchasing cars made in Japan. I would encourage those from other countries to join in the fun and celebrate with us. I think you will find we Americans to be open, friendly and on the good side of naïve. But if possible, before greeting us as comrades, please provide a warning. Something like: “Excuse me, clueless American friend, I am going to greet you with a friendly air-kiss. I come in peace. Do not be alarmed or try to defend yourself. And I will go left and you should go right.  And please, no tongues!”