Reboot

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.

Displaying photo.JPGSo 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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China DIY

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.

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My soon-to-be-ex-stove…

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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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”.

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Ni Hao, Y’all – Country Music in China

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 wont 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 days end, you are relieved to have survived

Well I may be real crazy, but baby, Im really alive!

Yee-haw.

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.

A Shanghai Halloween

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.

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.

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Slippin’ in the rain

The weather in Shanghai this summer has been particularly nice.  As I wrote about a few weeks ago, we’ve seen a strange ball of light in the sky a lot this summer and our annual quotient of puffy clouds has been fully consumed for this year and probably into the next.  It would be a shame if, because it was so nice this year that next year was doomed to days of a Blade Runner haze without the cool flying cars.

This would be a real downer because when it rains in Shanghai, life is truly miserable.  The problem is not that it rains but rather, in the way that it rains and what the rain does to the surrounding environment.  In Shanghai, we never seem to get a “light rain”, you know, that kind of rain that people identify as representing a romantic, thoughtful side of their character when they say they like strolling around in it (seriously, I’m not a relationship counselor, but if you’re even thinking of getting involved with someone who has written a single’s ad that says “likes walks in the rain”, I’d have a background check run on them immediately.  They would probably check the “likes poking small animals with a fork” box if there was one). No, rain in Shanghai is either one of two types: the Noah-build-a-boat torrential downpour or a stinging Chinese water torture where the droplets seemed to have been sharpened by some prankster angel before being released.  Then you add in the humidity of a city built on a swamp and you wonder that you don’t grow gills in order to survive.

The other misery in Shanghai is what happens to the city when it rains.  Case in point … I stepped out of my Shanghai office the other day and there was a light, stinging rain and that life-in-a-humidor heaviness to the air. I left the safe confines of my building and started walking gingerly down the sidewalk. I was doing pretty well until, walking by an apartment building, I suddenly slipped and, cursing Isaac Newton, started to feel myself losing my center of gravity.

Now, I am a rather tall person and, as such, I like to keep close tabs on my center of gravity. I check on it every so often to make sure that it is still more or less in the middle of me (and as the middle of me has expanded a bit over the years, it makes for a convenient shelf on which to place my center of gravity). But the risk to ones center of gravity during a rainstorm here is particularly high because China’s sidewalks, for the most part, are tiled. Now I’m not talking about the cool slate tiles on the outdoor patio of some California cuisine restaurant. No, I’m talking about freakin’ BATHROOM tiles. Walking on the sidewalk in China after it rains is akin to stepping out of the shower fully clothed (and for many of us not blessed by the gods of the walkway with supermodel beauty, remaining fully clothed in public is a service we are more than happy to provide). This is tile that would serve as a scene for a pratfall in every Three Stooges film or Tom and Jerry cartoon.

When I slipped and started to fall, life slowed to Matrix-fight-speed. I performed an ungainly pirouette until my entire weight came to rest on my left toe, a move resembling the graceless love child of a Keystone Kop and Dorothy Hamil’s less talented sister Hilda (the one with the inner-ear disorder). To offset the imbalance, I extended my right arm and bent over double, a move that one might imagine George Bush doing in his college cheerleading years with an equal amount of Bushian aplomb.

Now, if I could have done this when alone – say, in the confines of my own home – it wouldn’t have been so bad.  But in such a public setting, after the first 15 seconds, a crowd had formed to watch the foreigner gyrate. Bets were taken. Some put my performance down to a seizure and started debating whether to call a doctor; some thought me a defecting Russian gymnast who had just done a dismount off of some unseen apparatus and they were waiting for the judges’ scores; others speculated that I was a lesser talented member of an interpretative dance group who had decide that busking was a way to make a little extra scratch to make up for reduced NEA grants … and they were thinking of calling the cops.

Anyway, bent double and facing the pavement, I noticed another looming hazard of Shanghai street-life: a gaping hole in the sidewalk. The one before me was by no means the largest (city officials have filled most of the honey-have-you-seen-junior pits that used to pockmark the city), but I could feel myself being pulled towards it by Newton’s law (here I am not referring to the renowned physicist, Sir Isaac Newton but rather to my buddy, Mike “Fat Lip” Newton who is famous for saying “Any personal accident that CAN happen to me WILL”).

The thought of pitching headlong into the hole caused me to flail even more wildly. Reaching out with my left hand, I grasped at anything nearby that could save me … which turned out to be a clothesline heavy with someone’s laundry. A pair of skivvies fell over my face causing momentary blindness. I shook my head with vigor to dislodge the pest and banged my head on a low-hanging air conditioner. Oddly, this jolt had a calming effect as I suddenly found myself with both feet firmly planted on the ground and my center of gravity wobbling back to its rightful place.

As the time-space continuum was slowly being restored to its normal pace, I could hear a murmur of amazement resonating through my audience. A hot sensation of embarrassment crept upon me and, as like a good American, I gave full vent to my frustrations: “What is it with this country?” I yelled. “This place is a health hazard… the rain, the tile, the holes…. Where are the personal injury lawyers? This country needs a warning label!!”

As I ranted, the crowd quickly dispersed, but for one elderly Chinese man who took a few steps in my direction. He said nothing, but laid a gentle, steadying hand on my shoulder. He looked into my eyes. Then he looked at the departing crowd. I followed his gaze. Everyone else was walking upright on the wet tiles; they were doing just fine, avoiding the holes and their heads keeping clear of the low-hung air conditioners and laundry. The man looked back at me as if to say, “It is not the country that needs a warning label, young man. It’s you.”

 

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Ten Life Lessons Learned at the Minnesota State Fair

Like many expats in the dog days of Shanghai’s late summer, my thoughts turn to home. In the old days, summer was when expat’s practiced the annual migration known as “home leave.” Years ago, that journey had but one aim: to replenish life’s necessities: chocolate, coffee, deodorant and a decent haircut. In recent years, however, local supplies of the foregoing – at least in Shanghai – are sufficient to keep one fat, wired, handsome and smelling good for several lifetimes.

But now, thoughts of home carry a more existential weight, a centering point for one’s identity. I hail from the state of Minnesota in the US, an unassuming little bump on the upper edge of the Midwest, like rough-and-tumble Chicago was too threatening so we ran into the warm embrace of Canada. My state gave birth to Bob Dylan, Prince and Pamela Anderson, but most Minnesotans are neither as talented nor as good looking as these celebrities. That said, many members of our Lutheran choirs do sing in accents similar to Bobby Z, which may be why we are often mistaken for a Sarah Palin tribute band. However, we are far too polite to correct the error.

A large percentage of the Minnesotan population are genetically-related to Scandinavians. However, I have been to Sweden and Norway and it seems to me that the best-looking ones were prevented from emigrating. I’m not saying that Minnesotans are bad-looking, just that there is a reason radio broadcasting is a preferred career choice for many of us.

Often, when I tell someone I am from Minnesota, they smile and say, “Hey, I once knew a guy from Minnesota”, but they can never remember his name. They do remember, though, that he was “really nice”. I suppose there are worse things to be remembered for.

In many ways, Minnesota is everything that China is not. The skies are blue, the people are pale and the native food lacks anything that might be misconstrued as “taste”. Humans, cars and mosquitoes in Minnesota are all bigger than they are here, though I don’t doubt they would be annihilated were they transported to Shanghai. You see, Minnesotan culture moves a lot slower; in general, we prefer to husband our strength for emergencies. What emergencies, you might well ask. Well, we’re not quite sure, but our risk-averse upbringing tells us to be cautious so, as emergencies are few in our placid land, stored energy largely goes to waste…or more often, to “waist”.

Still, there is one Minnesota tradition that shares much with China: The Minnesota State Fair. Like China, Minnesota’s agricultural history has shaped much of our personality and practices, and the Minnesota State Fair is our harvest celebration. Think of it as the Mid-Autumn Festival for the beige-food crowd, or spending a Saturday on the Nanjing Lu walking street but with more livestock and people in seed caps.

For foodies interested in things like flavor, Minnesota epicurean traditions can leave one feeling a bit empty – our most famous native cuisine, called a “Hot Dish”, describes only the temperature of the container and says nothing about the food.  And for good reason – how much can anyone really do with a can of cream of mushroom soup, ground beef, a bag of tater tots and an oven set to 350 degrees?

However, come State Fair time, Minnesotans go wild with their food choices, turning into participants in some strange TV programming mash-up of Cooking with Julia Childs and Fear Factor. With reckless abandon we eat Tom Thumb Mini-Donuts (which we feel OK eating by the bucket-full because they are, well, mini and are therefor less fattening, per donut); Pronto Pups (which we are basically sure contain no actual pup parts); Sno Cones (a paper cup filled with chipped ice drenched in colored sugar water for which the consumer is charged $3, thus representing a 99.7% gross margin to the seller); and Foot Long Hot Dogs (where, true story, a number of years ago some snotty-nosed kid from Edina just out law school took a ruler to and forced the seller to rename them “ALMOST A Foot Long Hot Dogs”).

But most importantly, the Minnesota State Fair can provide opportunities for flights of existential fantasy resulting in revelations of the same sort that Confucian and Daoist masters experienced when observing life in China’s countryside. In short, spending time at the State Fair can show one The Way. So in humble homage to the Analects, I here present 10 Life Lessons Learned at the Minnesota State Fair:

1. The word “craft” can be broadly interpreted: “Seed Art”, anyone?

2. It is a mystery why Deep Fried Candy Bar on a Stick is not universally loved. I’ll break it down for you…it’s a candy bar, and it is deep-fried, and it is on a stick. What’s not to love?!? I’ve had Chinese Deep Fried Sparrow on a Stick and it simply cannot compare.

3. Cows smell better than pigs. I don’t know why this is, but if the pigs do not already know this, don’t tell them. I think they are quite sensitive.

4. Grown men do not fell bad about spending thirty bucks on multiple chances to break a plate with a baseball and win a two dollar teddy bear for their date. In fact, they feel pretty good. If we are not already worried about men ruling the world, we should be.

5. For most city people, sheep are exotic, endlessly fascinating creatures. The sheep, however, do not seem to return the interest.

6. Young children should be encouraged to tour the thrill rides and games of chance on the Midway so that, by the time they reach an employable age, they do not consider “Carny” a viable employment option. It’s never to early to start, parents.

7. Unlike disco, bell bottoms and the Bee Gees, the Mullet hair style has not improved with time. Please spread the word because too few people know this.

8. There is a “Best Udder” category in the cattle competition; however, the cows do not seem to find this sexist.

9. Artisans are still selling macramé plant hangers and decoupage picture frames. Those who cannot figure out how to make money in China should be ashamed.

10. Putting food on a stick (see number 2) does not necessarily make it taste better; however, you can charge more for it.

Lastly, I should note the presence of an inordinate number of Minnesotans in China, most of whom seem to be trying to escape Minnesota’s high tax rates, the deep-freeze of winter and mosquito infestations of summer, and enjoy China’s raw jour de vive. You can identify these lost souls easily – they are always the first person to say “excuse me” in embarrassing social situations and are forever missing subways because they allow others to board before they do. If you do happen to meet one of us you will likely find that, though we really are nice, if we had to be honest with ourselves, we can be quite dull. So I will leave you with a final culture tip – if you do attempt to engage a Minnesotan in conversation and the dialogue begins to drag, interject a “So what’s this I hear about a Minnesota State Fair…?”  Then stand back and wait for the Master to speak.

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I hate traffic lights too

I had a meeting the other day in Pudong, the new(ish) part of Shanghai on the east (“dong”) side of the river (“Pu”) and was on my way back to the west side of the river where the older part of downtown Shanghai lies.  I am not sure just why but, no matter the time of day, traffic is always heavier coming into the city than going out.  I could understand if there was a rush-hour thing going on – everyone going one way in to work in the morning and the other way going out at night.  But no, traffic is always bad coming in.  Where do all the cars go that come into the city … do they go out, eventually?  If so, when?  At night, like a teenager tiptoeing home stealthily after curfew? If they don’t, where do they go?  Is it like socks in the clothes dryer – put two pairs in and 3 individual socks come out, none of them matching?

Anyway, I digress … so I was in a taxi and we came through the tunnel and then only had a couple of kilometers to go to get to my office. Suddenly, the taxi driver veered into the lane to get on the elevated highway which, of course, was more like an elevated used car lot without the clowns, balloons and hot dogs for the kiddies – cars were bumper-to-bumper and completely motionless.

“Um … why are you getting on the highway?” I asked, very politely (rule #1: Don’t poke the bear if he’s driving a cab in Shanghai).  “My office is really close … just take the streets.”

“No way,” he said, “there are too many traffic lights.”

“Uh … yea, but at least the traffic is moving between the lights.”

“Nope.  I hate traffic lights.”

Oddly, I hear that a lot from taxi drivers in Shanghai … they all have this preternatural aversion to traffic lights.  When I first came to Shanghai in the late 1980s, there were, maybe, four taxis in the entire city; rather, the public bus ruled the road, like some lumbering brontosaurus ready to devour the mammals newly emerged from the primordial slime. (Warning: if some dinosaur geek sends a comment that my metaphor doesn’t work because brontosauruses were plant-eating and, therefore, would not eat mammals, I will delete it and with malice aforethought).  Traffic signals were kind of iffy back then – if they actually worked, no one knew if traffic would actually stop for them – so the authorities installed traffic cops.

I don’t know about you but, until I came to China, the only traffic cop I’d ever seen was the one who yelled “Stop” at Frosty the Snowman (non-Americans, don’t ask … just Google it). To me these men (and the occasional woman) were heroes, boldly standing in the middle of the maelstrom of rushing vehicles, most of which had loose steering, questionable braking systems and brand-spanking-new drivers, the Traffic Trifecta. The traffic cops coordinated their hand motions with the traffic lights, like some early version of Dance Dance Revolution, and, for the most part, drivers obeyed them.  When the traffic cops called it a night around 9 p.m., of course, everyone completely ignored the traffic lights and it became Dante’s Seventh Ring Road of Hell.

It’s different today and most drivers will stop for lights … but it’s clear that they don’t like it.  Most traffic lights in China have countdown mechanisms, telling you how many seconds you have to wait for it to turn again … and as the counter creeps down into the single digits drivers will rev their engines and slide slowly up against the bumper of the car in front of them, fearing that even the slightest gap might encourage queue-jumpers to insert themselves into the space. When the light does turn, there is a collective stomping of the accelerator, blasting a hole in ones eardrums and the ozone layer, and the cars are off on a steeple-chase to find their place among the lines painted on the road which drivers usually treat merely as good advice, like being asked to recycle or wipe down the equipment at the gym when you’re done.  By the time some semblance of order is resumed, everyone pulls up to the next traffic light which, instead of being timed with its siblings along the same street is rather synched with some acid jazz inflected disco beat played by tone-deaf musicians in an alternative dimension and has just reached the downbeat of the red light … and the game starts all over.

Hmmm, on second thought, I think I hate traffic lights too … they control your driving and tell you what to do. It’s not about speed, man … it’s about freedom! So I’ll take the elevated highway where I can breathe the sweet air of vehicular liberty and feel the wind of driving independence blowing through my hair.  Of course, I’ll have to stick my head in front of the air conditioning to feel that wind because creeping along at the speed of glacial ice melt doesn’t force much air into the car.

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