The heating in my Shanghai apartment went out the other day. Not a big deal, you think … its after Spring Festival so that means Spring is here, right? And who needs heating when it’s Spring, right? Not so. I guess the weather numpties here don’t have smartphones to look up “vernal equinox” on Wikipedia. The temperature in Shanghai has been hovering in the single digits Celsius, a system of measurement designed to make things feel much colder, farther and heavier than they really are.
So I called the building management on the intercom. The conversation went something like this:
Me: My heater isn’t working.
Voice on the Other End: Mphrp grrb fizzle brap
Me: Oh, OK. Thank you
It was good to know that Charlie Brown’s teacher was able to find employment after those annoying cartoons ran out. But I was no closer to having a solution to my heater problem
I have a box of tools here, so I took them out, hoping that inspiration would strike. Pliers, screwdrivers, a hammer, a thingamajig and a whosawhatsis, all critical tools for the mechanically inept. But I got a whole lotta nuthin’. They stared back at me as if to say, “Why are you disturbing us. Put us back, you might hurt yourself. And hey, its cold in here … fix the damn heat!”
I went back to stare at my thermostat to see if I could figure out the problem. That’s what my father always did. “Let’s take a look and see what we’ve got here,” he would say whenever something didn’t work. I remember looking up at him, awestruck, this Superhero with a toolbelt of Batman-like complexity and a look of steely confidence. He didn’t use the word “thingamajig” … he called things by their proper names. To me, a tape measure was something to pull out and watch snap back. To him, it was a tool that gave him useful information when he was taking a look and seeing what he’d got there.
So I stared at the thermostat, to see what I had there, but again, nothing. It turned out that I was staring at the water meter. No wonder I didn’t get anything. I finally found the thermostat and glared at it. I started to analyze it – small, beige box, squarish, a few buttons, some numbers that seemed to be changing, getting smaller. I pushed the “plus” button, assuming that it might adjust the temperature higher. It turns out that the thermostat was already set at a temperature more appropriate for firing pottery, so I shrewdly guessed that it wasn’t the setting that was the problem.
I remembered that my dad would always open things – the hood of the car, the back of the stove – and that seemed to get him where he was going. I looked for a little door or something. Nothing. That sucker was sealed up tighter that David Koch’s wallet at a Hillary Clinton fundraiser.
Dad used to talk to things, “C’mon, you stupid bolt, loosen up!” So I talked to it, “Hey … um, thermostat. This is Kent. Your renter. Um … I’m freezing my patootie off out here, how about coughing up some heat.” Nothing. Then I noticed that the thermostat was made by Siemens … so I tried out some of my rusty high school German: “Hallo. Hans geht ins Kino und Monika sind im boot.” (Hello. Hans went to the theater and Monica is in the boat.) Again, nothing. It seems I had the cheaper model of thermostat, the one without the human speech processor.
Maybe the problem wasn’t with the thermostat … maybe something was blocking the heating ducts. One time, when I was a kid, I remember my dad pulling a dead (and very dry) bird out of the dryer duct. Shanghai is decidedly lacking in wildlife. We’ve got some birds, rats, feral taxi drivers, but that’s about all. I decided that I did not want to find some mummified Shanghai taxi guy curled up in the fetal position in my heating register, so I didn’t bother looking.
So I did what I usually did when things didn’t work. “OK, two can play at that game … if you won’t work,” I told it, “I’m just going to shut you off.” I had to go out of town anyway so I just turned it off. Maybe it needed a vacation, some me-time; get away from the rat race, the constant demands to produce warmth and comfort for people, people who never thanked you, never said how much they appreciated the hard work.
I returned a couple of days later to an even colder apartment (concrete walls in China are constructed with some strange technology that radiates cold) and absentmindedly turned on the heat. It was about an hour later – when things were decidedly warmer – that I remembered the problems earlier and went back to the thermostat to check. Yes, it was warmer. I felt the air blowing out of the heating registers … yes, it was truly warm, almost hot (I then went back to the thermostat to turn down the setting to “turkey basting”). I had heat again.
Don’t you wish all of life could be this way? Something isn’t working, just shut it down and give it a rest. I look at my life today and there are areas where I could sure use a hard re-boot; press ctrl-alt-delete to restart things. But alas, I’m left only with more banal thingamajigs and whosawhatsis, a critical stare and a firm self-talking to. Maybe I should try it in German.
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I received a note in my mailbox from Shanghai Gas – the local utility not the result from consuming the local cuisine – saying that they needed to send a technician to change the gas lines to my stove and asking if I would be home between, I think, 9:00 a.m. Saturday and 2017 (yea, they’re not great planners at Shanghai Gas). The techno-dude came, miraculously, on the appointed Saturday morning, and did his gas magic, pronouncing his job done in 10 minutes. As I walked him to the door, he said off-handedly, “Oh, when they restart the gas later this afternoon, your old stove might not work with the new gas system. Have a nice day.”
Um … what? So, precisely, did you end up “fixing”??
Sure enough, later that afternoon the gas came on but my stove did not … or it did but with a flame the power of a mosquito’s disposable lighter. Certainly not enough to fire up a wok. So what to do? I guess I needed to get a new stove. I called my landlord who came back with a version of “I’m not going to do anything … it was OK when I last saw it”, so I guess is was up to me to get a new gas range and install it.
That should be no problem for me. I come from a long line of do-it-yourselfers, strong, practical men who can fix anything with a pair pliers, a length of twine and a well-used handkerchief. My father always repaired the family car himself – in the days before you needed a computer science degree from M.I.T. – as did his father before him. In the same Mr. Fix-it Family tradition, my brother can completely rewire and re-plumb his kitchen before breakfast. In short, the handyman DNA is part of my genetic inheritance.
I, however, paddle around in the shallow end of the family gene pool, sputtering and getting water up my nose. I don’t know how to plug in a hammer; I can’t distinguish between a dime and a ten-penny nail, and I use terms like “whosa-whatsis” and “thingy-bobby” to describe anything more complicated than a mechanical pencil.
Consequently, not long after I arrived in China to teach, back in the days when most everything here broke down on a regular basis, I soon found that my apartment had become a sort of burial ground of broken things, the place where man-made objects came to die a dishonorable death. The week after I moved in, my desk lamp went up in a mini mushroom cloud of smoke and sparks. Once it expired, I was reduced to correcting tests by candlelight, a fact that I regrettably confessed to a Chinese colleague. He gave me that puzzled look I so often receive, the one that says: “and you can feed yourself?” That look was accompanied by advice: “So just call someone to fix it.”
Sure enough, I collared the campus maintenance man, the same guy who was in charge of the campus screwdriver. He agreed to look at my lamp; indeed, he fixed it quicker than you can say “why didn’t you call me in the first place?” This was a revelation to me…I didn’t have to remain a victim of my own mechanical ineptitude.
China is not DIY (Do It Yourself); it is YDI (You Do It). There is no need to spend good money on a set of expensive tools to fix your bicycle when you can find 90 bicycle repairmen within three meters of wherever you might be (on your broken down bike). Take it from me, these guys could get Lance Armstrong back up and running again in seconds flat. Except for the drug charges. You’re kinda on your own on that one, Lancy-pants.
So back to the stove … if it was going to be able to ever cook again, I would need to do something about it so I went to Yolo, a local home improvement store to look at gas ranges. I saw gleaming, ready-to-install appliances; easy-to-apply paint with names like Shanghai Industrial Sunrise (a mottled orange); and numerous, simple-to-use, shiny hand tools. All of which gave rise to that all-too-familiar nervous twitching of my lower duodenum. Yes, these objects were awaiting buyers more capable than this humble blogger.
I looked around at all of the gas ranges. My knowledge of gas extends to giving it some, stepping on it and passing it … I know nothing about gas appliances. Typically, men in such a situation will try to fake it, to pretend we know something when we really don’t. Not me. I’m a firm believer in the 12-step method to home improvement: Step 1: admit that you need help. Step 2: seek the assistance of a higher power (in this case Ms. Yang at the Yolo Home Improvement store in Shanghai). I walked up to Ms. Yang, told her that I need a new stove, gave her the measurements (I can, usually, operate a tape measure) and then told her to tell me what to buy. She showed me something. I asked for something cheaper. She showed me something else. I asked “is it easy to install”? She said, “delivery and installation are free with purchase.” I firmly resisted kissing her and said, “I’ll take it!” I was in and out of the store in 10 minutes, flat.
I walked out of there with a nearly tangible sense of the familiar. There I was, back in the shallow end of the gene pool where the water was warm and someone else was plunging into the deep end on my behalf. I hope they can fix the plumbing while they are down there.
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A 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”.
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Like “government intelligence” and “student athlete”, some call “Country Music” the ultimate oxymoron…it may come from the country but it sure as heck is not music. As one of the only original American art forms (besides the Big Mac), country music has had little impact outside the U.S. borders, for which many outside U.S. borders are thankful.
Of late, I’ve been listening to a lot of Country Music. Before you call me a hick, I must state here and now, for the record, that my taste in music is varied. I love jazz, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, grunge, heavy metal, classical, ska, punk, you-name-it. What’s more, I used to play in a band that was billed as “post punk, alternative, low fi, British speed pop.” I ain’t no tobacco-chewing, truck-driving, gun-toting, red-neck American sonovabeech. At least, not usually.
No, my interest in country music is purely on an aesthetic level, on the poetry of country song, the word pictures it paints. Take the lyrics of Tim McGraw (better known as Mr. Faith Hill, one of the many men in this world that has married far above his station in life), for example. In one of his songs, the chorus goes: “I may be a real bad boy, but baby I’m a real good man.”
In the mind of a guy – where the volatile X-Y chromosome mix does not lend itself to logical thought – this line makes perfect sense. To us, it sounds like something that might get you out of the doghouse with your significant-other-of-the-opposite-sex after a too-late-night-out-with-the-guys. Put that lost puppy look on your face, look deep into her eyes and in a gravelly twang sing, “I may be a real bad boy … but baby I’m a real good man.”
Yea, right…that might work for maybe a nanosecond. And then she’ll whup you upside the head, tell you to act your age and “if-you-think-I-am-that-stupid-then-you-got-another-thing-coming-buster-npw-go-out-and-clean-the-garage!!” Of course you don’t think she is that stupid. But you do think she should listen to more country music. However, maybe she thinks you should look more like Tim McGraw.
Of course, China, too, boasts many a bard. From the Tang Dynasty Daoists, who used poetry to query the meaning of life to modern Shanghai advertisers touting plastic surgery as the answer, this country has an inborn sensitivity to the power of words. With so much in common, then, why is country music not more popular in China? There’s Chinese pop music, hip-hop, rap, rock-and-roll … but no country.
Which is a cryin’ shame. Just imagine the creative possibilities. I have. In fact I’ve started writing a few country tunes, like this one about lost love: “You got on a Beijing-bound bus, said goodbye, leaving just the sting of diesel fumes in my eye.” I get teary just thinking about it.
Here’s another one about food: “Honey, you’re a hot little thing, like a big helping of Gong Bao Ji Ding.”
Or perhaps you’d prefer this little tribute to Nancy Sinatra, an ode to Chinese utensils: “These sticks were made for choppin’”? [Read it out loud … and … wait for it … ah, now you get it!].
The possibilities are endless. Women…say you have a date and the guy is not quite … uh … up to standards. Try “You think you’re a Plaza 66 lover, but you’re really just Subway Knock-off Market under the covers.” Ouch. The guy will have to go out and buy himself a fake DVD just to ease the pain.
Of course, all the songs above must be sung in a good ol’ US southern accent … not a southern Chinese accent or you’ll sound like a bunch of Hong Kong real estate agents juiced up on Courvoisier and howling karaoke. The way to sing Country Music is to slow down your speech and stretch your vowels waaaaaay out. Like my buddy from Texas who pronounces my first name with two syllables: “Kee-ant”. You gotta sound like that (or “lahk they-at”).
Now that you have the idea sing along with me, in full voice and with feeling …
You can keep them wide open spaces, where the deer and the antelope roam
Just give me the grit, the grime and the crowds, of Shanghai, my home sweet home
The breeze from Suzhou Creek on a hot August day can make a grown man cry
And the MSG in my daily lunch means I won’t have to be embalmed when I die
I made it from Hongqiao to Lujiazui and was only 3 hours late
And the death-defying driver I had was an expert in tempting the fates.
Some think it insane that, at Shanghai day’s end, you are relieved to have survived
Well I may be real crazy, but baby, I’m really alive!
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.
You may not have noticed, but we just passed through a major holiday. It used to be known in Shanghai simply as “October 31” but recently the date has taken on its American name: “Halloween”. As a card-carrying American, I have to object: I know Halloween, and this local version, sir, is not the real thing. It is nothing more than an excuse for nightclubs to promote more drink ‘specials’ (as if most people around here needed another reason to drink or needed to feel any more special about it).
No, the real Halloween, the holiday of my memories, is far more innocent. It is for children, children who travel door-to-door in a costume and beg candy from total strangers and then come home to stuff said candy into their facial orifices (yes, there are documented cases of Whoppers stuck in 5 year old nostrils … a sad, sad situation).
Years ago, when my kids were young, we attempted to recreate this festivity in Gubei, with some foreign friends. Now, Gubei lies in the heart of the expatriate ghetto in Shanghai. My foreign friends lived in an American suburban-style housing development, complete with vinyl siding and the largest marshalling of grass in the city at that time. As such, it seemed to be begging for a Halloween party.
Our two kids were dressed in Winnie-the-Pooh and a Dalmatian costumes, their sartorial tribute to the ancient America deity, Diz Nee. Our family joined with a gang of about ten other families, including a couple Americans but mostly Asians of various origins. For many of the Asian kids, this was their first time out on a Halloween jaunt, and some were a bit confused. I tried explaining the meaning of Halloween, and received a befuddled response:
Kid: Um…OK, let me get this straight. I dress up in this gosh-awful costume, knock on my neighbor’s door, yell some odd incantation and they put candy in my bag?
Me: Yep, that’s about it.
Kid: God bless America!!
For me, the best part of the evening was seeing the looks on the faces of the home owners who, as Americans, forgot it was Halloween, or as non-American foreigners didn’t know such a crazy thing existed. The Americans scrambled for something to give the kids; the others ran for the back door. I remember one elderly Asian woman who answered the door, only to be greeted by a herd of sugar-blitzed, costumed kids yelling at her to “do something or else”. The “or else” was left unclear. Her eyes opened wide, her face turned as pale as the proverbial Halloween ghost, and then she slammed the door. I am sure she made a bee-line to the phone and booked a one-way ticket on the first flight out.
We must have spent a good hour and a half traipsing from door to door, getting more hits than misses and having a whee of a time. Here I must confess that I really had a good time that night, walking with other parents, beaming proudly at our cute kids, repeating for the umpteenth time variations of the phrase “No, you may not unwrap all your candy and run naked through it … wait until we get home!”
Through it all, I had a very strong sense of how groups of people, quite literally recreate their native culture abroad. Halloween in China is not a “natural” occurrence: stores do not stock up on enough mini-Snickers to give most of the developing world the sugar blues, and those annoying Charlie Brown TV specials are not shown on TV (enough, already, with the Great Pumpkin shtick, Linus – lose the blanket and get into counseling, for goodness sake!). As I’ve outlined above, if you wish to celebrate the wonder of Halloween in Shanghai, you have to provide the spirit yourself. And that is hard work.
But we did it. Why? Well, ostensibly it was for our children’s benefit, the one time of the year when a Roman-style eating orgy (with candy) is acceptable. But to be honest, I conjured the ghost of Halloween past, not for the kids, but for me. I did it because I needed a bubble of familiarity, in what is still to me, after all this time, a “foreign” culture. I went trick-or-treating with my kids in Shanghai because I remember pictures of me doing the same thing when I was their age (though I seem to recall less smog in family photos). In short, it was not the event that was special; rather, it was the memory I created of the event.
But the honesty with which I expose my own motives should be kept from my kids. Let them think that this Halloween in Shanghai is, somehow, normal; that every child here rides a taxi to some neo-American suburban boil on the bum of this great city to scam polyunsaturated fats from the biggest collection of white folks they have seen since the last visit home. I want my kids to grow up with the sort of “natural” memories that I hold dear. At the same time, I want to provide them with the opportunity I never had – to live in harmony amongst a wide spectrum of cultures. Of course that means on a future October 31 I will engage in the following enlightened conversation with my kids:
“Dad, can I borrow one of your ties and your black wingtip shoes?”
“Uh, yeah … I guess so. What do you want them for?”
“It’s for my Halloween costume … I’m going as a Cultural Imperialist!”
Don’t laugh … that day is closer than you think.