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.”



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.


Patience is a virtue … and is often in short supply in China

When I first came to China – back in the days before everyone had a mobile phone surgically attached to their ear and lusted after automobiles – I was rather naïve. Like most Midwestern Americans, I grew up believing that if I dug a hole deep enough, I would come out in China. I also believed that I was a connoisseur of Chinese food because I regularly ate my Swedish grandmother’s chow mein.

On arrival, however, I realized my ignorance of Chinese culture was bottomless – if I dug a hole deep enough I would just get dirty and Grandma’s chow mein functioned better as tile grout than it did as sustenance. So I went in search of knowledge. My first mentor was a former university acquaintance whom I met when he was a visiting scholar at my university in the US. When I got to China, I tracked him down and landed on him like a fly on your lunchtime gong bao ji ding. Each time we met I would pepper him with questions, trying to get at the “secret” of Chinese culture, that one swing-thought that would guarantee my complete understanding of this ancient civilization. Our conversation ranged from the esoteric – the Confucian foundations of modern society – to the practical – how to make coffee in pre-Starbuck’s China (which, if memory serves, required grinding tree root, adding pencil shavings and squeezing it through a damp athletic sock).

In the end, though, the only Kung Fu Master-like statement he ever made was this: “Kent, if you want to understand China, you must know what it means to be patient.” Which sounded both cool and logical; after all, a country with thousands of years of history knows that things take time. To better grasp the profundity of this concept I formed the following suppositions: China is old, therefore it is patient; America is young, therefore it is brash and impatient. Cool.

But over time, I discovered that this, like most generalizations, was only partially true. Chinese people are patient in some things; in others they are the most impatient people in the world. Attempt to board any form of public transportation – bus, subway, airplane, train – and be prepared to become a human speed bump if you don’t flow with the anxious crowd. There are no lines; no taking turns. The doors open, heads go down, feet start moving and the devil-takes-the-hindmost.

Ever try to board an elevator here? It is an accepted practice to punch the “close door” button the very second passengers enter or exit the car. Indeed, you can always identify the “close door” button by the finger-shaped indent caused by excessive use. If your timing is right, you might even get extra points for clipping the heel of their shoe. What is this irrational fear of open elevator doors? Is everyone here an agoraphobe who can’t wait to shut themselves into a tiny box with twenty other people? Contrarian that I am, when I happen to be standing near the buttons, I purposefully do not push the close door button and casually block others from doing so. Call me evil, but I enjoy watching everyone squirm.

Airplane travel is host to any number of impatient acts. Just before the plane touches down, people jump up and haul their bags from the overhead storage area like they are sky-surfing in a big metal tube with a carry-on slapped on their back. When the plane docks, the crowd pushes ahead as if the jetway might suddenly be pulled back leaving stragglers stranded on the plane. And so the herd pushes on, up the ramp, into the terminal and on to the people mover where … they abruptly stand still, letting the equipment do the work. Why? I honestly don’t know!  Maybe they are husbanding their strength for the next assault?

As for me, well, I’ve learned to hang back, sitting calmly in my seat until the scrum passes, then nonchalantly amble out of the plane. By the time I reach the people mover, I am already going faster than those that emerged before me. And – bonus! – I am not bleeding.

My last example of impatience in China also comes from the transportation sector. When I drive along a residential street, someone is bound to leave the sidewalk and suddenly cross the street in front of my car. What is up with that?? Do people value their own lives so little? Do they think my reaction time is as good as an F1 driver? Are they thinking at all? Do they not think: “Hey… my ancestors have been around here for thousands of years and have built one of the most enduring cultures in the history of our species. I am going to wait three nanoseconds until that pale, nervous looking guy driving the van goes by me and then cross the street”? I’m just asking here.

Yes, the irony is apparent. Here I am, an American, harping on the importance of patience in China. We Americans invented fast food, the microwave oven, the One Minute Manager and neo-con regime change. I thank my local friends for their patience in not giving me the butt-whooping I deserve.


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.


Here comes the sun

There is an environmental disaster of epic proportions looming over the great city of Shanghai and it is threatening to change our way of life forever. We are being forced to dress differently, walk differently and apply chemicals to our skin to protect us from this hazard. In spite of the evidence, some observers claim that this phenomenon is a natural occurrence in cities that do not contain 25 million people and 5 billion cars.

I have been doing extensive research and have found out that this phenomenon is called “the sun” and it has been beating down on us without mercy for much of the summer, especially in the last week. To more recent residents of ‘The Hai’, this may not seem like a big deal; indeed, if they were formerly denizens of the North Pole, for example, they would probably welcome the heat. However, those crusty veterans who love nothing more than to bore their listeners with stories of “the way it used to be in China, long before Starbucks, when we had to grind coffee with our teeth and wash it down with boiling water” the intense heat of the sun is a sign of impending Armageddon, the fifth horseman of the apocalypse, a surfboard his steed, and a beach umbrella his standard.  Is there going to be much more of this?  I certainly hope not … I like to be able to see what I’m breathing.

It never used to be this way (cue the collective eye roll at the ranting of the crusty veteran…). Way back when, Shanghai was a real city, where men were men and they all had black lung. What the city lacked in automobiles it made up for in coal-stoked power plants, belching factories and two-stroke tractors that could poke a hole in the ozone layer like a bowling ball through damp tissue paper.  There were some days where I nearly chipped a tooth breathing. At one point, I seriously considered taking up smoking just so I could filter the air that I inhaled. It is true that from time to time, the wind would blow in some blessed harmonic convergence of meteorological forces and the sun would peek out of the haze. On one such occasion, in the company of my daughter, a pre-schooler at the time, I stood in awe as she stopped in her tracks, extended her arms to soak up the rays, chanting, “the sun, the sun…look at the sun.” Yikes.

In preparation for the Expo in 2010, Shanghai city leaders, in their wisdom, moved most of the industry outside the city limits and, of course, industrial pollution has moved along with it. With clear skies, the sun is visible, and weather forecasters are no longer the object of curses. At least not from newcomers to the city. The rest of us, however, are less than excited because we are all too aware of the attending hazards.

For example, on a sunny day in Shanghai, many women will shield themselves with umbrellas, presumably to prevent looking like human beef jerky when they are 80. Walk around downtown at lunchtime and witness the Battle of the Bumbershoots as they fight for sidewalk space. It is now possible to be blinded by the sun  … not by staring directly into it but by being poked in the eye repeatedly by a series of office workers wielding their umbrellas like Mary Poppins on a caffeine-fueled rampage. In the old days, being blinded in this fashion was rare; however, coughing up a lung was a real threat, so I suppose there were tradeoffs.

Recently, when I was out playing a round of golf (at least that is what good players call it; I use other four-letter words to describe my game), I applied 30 spf lotion to my exposed parts to protect me from the sun. For those of you who are not chemical engineers, 30 spf is like wrapping yourself in aluminum foil, the protection is supposed to be that good. The claim is false. In the end, I ended the day short 12 golf balls and 15 shades darker than my usual pasty-white-beached-Beluga-whale look. Next time, I will bring more balls and wear a surplus nuclear fallout suit.

Just think of all the accessories we must now acquire here to protect ourselves: sun  visors, sun glasses and big floppy sun hats, to name just a few. What a pain! Do you know what my tall, gangly frame looks like in a big, floppy sun hat? I’m not sure how to describe it but I’m pretty sure I could pick up signals from space were I positioned properly.

My point is that the heat of the sun in Shanghai is intensifying to an alarming degree. Recently I visited a client’s office where the staff had opened the windows though they were running the air conditioner full blast. Apparently, they had been indulging in this peculiar practice for quite some time, because the strength of the sun’s rays had peeled the lead paint on the walls and curled the astro-turf on the floor.

Years ago, the recipe for a Shanghai summer used to read “cover with a thick layer of petrochemical particulate matter and bake at 350 degrees for five months.” Today, we have more modern cooking techniques available to us courtesy of the sun: broiling, toasting, searing and good old-fashioned barbeque.

We also have something called the “heat index” to more accurately measure our suffering. For example, the other day the mercury read 37 degrees (nearly 99 degrees Fahrenheit for Kyoto Accord-snubbing Americans) but the heat index registered 43. I am not sure how useful a distinction this is … kind of like saying: “I was run over by a mini-van but it felt like getting hit by a truck.”

Welcome to the new Shanghai summer. And keep your hazmat suits handy.



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!”


Name that dish

Spend enough time hanging around the Middle Kingdom and you begin to learn that food here is more than simply sustenance…it is, at any one time, fuel for social relationships, a reason to drink and smoke, a reward for a job well-done and a peace offering to the coworker you wanted to throttle in his cubicle during the business day a mere two hours ago.

But the real essence of Chinese food lies in its history. Imagine asking an American for the “story behind the hot dog”…it’s likely you would be met with a blank stare.  Well, there is a story behind the hot dog and, I believe, it has something to do with a World’s Fair. If I knew the whole tale, it might take my mind off the fact that a hot dog really is all the gross animal parts swept up off the floor and stuffed inside a sausage skin, livestock offal in an edible container.

However, the majority of Americans neither know nor care about this piece of lost history. We are a practical race, one whose concerns revolve around the quantity of raw onions bits surrounding the hot dog, the quantity of watery beer available to wash it down and the baseball game, which depending on its quality, may or may not suffice to distract us from the ingredients in the hot dog.

The Chinese, on the other hand, have a vast and ready knowledge of their cuisine. True, many Chinese today are far removed from direct contact with what they consume. Gone are the halcyon days of the infamous Shanghai wet market (or “Organ Donor Alley” as my father called it) when folks purchased their food in a raw state. Instead most Chinese now purchase the all-too-familiar mystery meat in barely opaque bubble wrap in their modern grocer’s refrigerator. But that doesn’t mean that they have forgotten their history.

Any Chinese man-on-the-street can name the five main types of Chinese cuisine and recount the specialities of his hometown. He may lack the culinary skills required to boil water without burning the pot, but he can (and will) tell you if a certain dish is not prepared quite right. The only reason China doesn’t have a Food Channel is that it would be pointless; there’s no need to inform people about something they already know (or are confident they know, even if they don’t).

In the US, food is mere science; in China it’s an art. And art that incorporates poetry, particularly when naming a dish. Consider a few of the more creative Chinese dish names: Buddha Jumped Over the Wall (and no, the big guy didn’t jump over the wall because there was a rack of BBQ ribs on the other side… try again). And then there’s the wonderful entomological imagery evoked by Ants Climbing a Tree (as opposed to climbing the walls like they do in my apartment) or the ode to love, Fu Qi Fei Pian (literally “Husband Wife Lung Slices”). Let me explain this one; it consists of thinly sliced beef lung and tripe, one dark, the other light, get it, man and women, married… (I’m not going to tell you which is the tripe and which is the lung. I leave that to the individual spousal units… not getting in the middle of that one, no way!).

Call me a sissy, but I have decided it is high time that we Americans got off our trans-fat fannies and started putting some poetry into our food. Of course, renaming existing dishes might cause war, but someone’s got start this thing, so here’s my humble List of American Dishes That Have No History (OK…I’ll work on that name a bit before it goes prime time).

Irish Stew: a bowl of Lucky Charms left too long in milk;

Obese Ants on a Log: “Whoppers” brand malted milk balls lined up on a Twinkie;

Dylan Unplugged: a flaming plate of hot peppers doused in chili;

Learning to Wok: Chow Mein in a microwaveable carton, with heating instructions;

Supermodel Delight: a glass of water;

Supermodel Binge: a glass of water with an olive floating in it;

You Betcha That’s Lunch: anything doused in cream of mushroom soup, layered with Tater Tots and baked at 350 degrees for 35 minutes, served with cherry Jello, sliced bananas, stale potato chips and a glass of 1% milk (fellow Minnesotans, can I get an “Amen” here?);

Honey You Left the Milk Out Again: cheese;

Honey You Left the Milk Out: cheese;

Honey You Left the Milk Out Again and You are Going to Clean Up the Mess This Time: cottage cheese;

I am not trying to supplant Chinese cuisine; goodness knows no one can do that.  But I am trying to motivate we Americans to think about our food as something other than fuel. And when one keels over from a massive coronary after consuming hunks of roast beef piled on mashed potatoes and soaked with gravy, the eulogy will sound so much better mentioning the deceased’s love for “Nurse Get the Paddles.” At least mine will.

To be … or what??

Many apologies for the spotty blogging lately.  I’ve been trying to move to a new apartment in Shanghai while, simultaneously, spending a significant amount of time traveling on business outside of Shanghai.  It turns out that the time-space continuum favors being in one location for a period of time to get stuff done in that location.  Who knew?

However, there’s nothing like a philosophical conundrum to shake one from blogging lethargy … and I woke up on a Monday morning a couple of weeks ago to find that I don’t exist.  Well … maybe that’s a bit too brief an explanation for what is turning out to be more than a simple adventure in amateur ontolology.  So let me begin again …

I woke up on the morning in question in my usual state, a bit creaky but generally looking forward to the first cup of coffee, a scan of the morning’s news and the typical routine to get family members off for the day. The coffee was made without mishap, nothing shocking in the news – and yes, the Greeks really didn’t think we’d notice the massive mountain of IOUs hidden under the government baklava – and the daughter was rousted, fed and pushed out the door to school with only minor grumblings and scowls laden with teenaged angst.

My first activity of the day was to go to the bank – over the weekend I had lost my debit card to an ATM machine with an eating disorder but without the urge to purge, so I had to see if I could get a new card.  Thankfully, I have not had to actually go to the bank much in years … my salary gets deposited, I take money out and, provided the latter does not exceed the former, everything is hunky-dory.  To be honest, I can say that I’ve probably actually set foot in my bank here, maybe, five times since I set up the account many years ago.  So it was with not a little trepidation that I gathered my various forms of ID and showed up at the door to the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, or ICBC (when some of the local Shanghaiers say it fast, it sounds like they’re saying “icy-beasty,” conjuring images of wooly mammoth carcasses encased in the frozen tundra).

Now, like I said, I’ve had this particular account for eons and I set it up during an era in China banking that was, to put it politely, “unregulated.”  To put it not-so-politely, China banking used to be the mother of all fiscal free-for-alls where bank records were written in crayon on 3×5 index cards and stored in a spittoon on a very high shelf in a broom closet secured by a hairpin (aka a “bank vault” in the local parlance of the time).  Seriously, back in the dark ages, going to the bank in China was an all-day affair where you had to show up at 9:00 when the bank opened (which ended up being 11:00 if the one person in possession of the door key had alarm troubles that morning) and then join the scrum around the teller window clamoring for attention.  I usually did quite well, having inherited long arms from my father and freakishly sharp elbows from my mother, but getting to speak to someone was only the beginning of the trials.  From thence they actually had to access the 3×5 cards on the high shelves – and bank employees in the day were all oddly short and lacked ladders – decipher the hieroglyphics, confirm your identity and then, and only then, could you start to transact your business.

My memory of setting up this account is oddly murky…I think I vaguely remember going to a bank branch near my then-office and showing my identification which consisted of my passport and a document called the Alien Identification Certificate (and, if you had seen my photo in said document you’d have sworn I had just crash-landed at Roswell).

Now, I’m not sure how this happened, but when they registered my account, they used my passport number but then took my Chinese name from my ID card. Giving foreigners Chinese names is a complex process – and probably deserves its own mind-numbingly long blogpost – but is usually accomplished through some creative process whereby a someone takes the foreigner’s name and transposes the sounds into something vaguely Chinese.  If that “someone” likes you, you get a cool sounding name with notes of history and culture; if that person doesn’t like you, you may end up being called Fish Lips for the rest of your natural life in China.  However one thing is abundantly clear: whether named after Tang dynasty poet or an animal body part, a foreigner’s Chinese name carries NO legal weight in China unless, in a moment of identity crisis, that person gives up their citizenship and takes a Chinese passport.

So when the bank teller took my Chinese name from my ID card, s/he was opening an account for a fictitious person.  Granted, I’m sure this happens all the time around the world for those wishing to use a bank for nefarious purposes.  But I was looking to store my money, not launder it, so a legal bank account under an illegal (and, indeed, non-existent) name was a problem.  Of course, I didn’t realize that this was going to be a problem until it was, indeed, a problem, which I discovered on the Monday morning in question.

So back at the bank … I sat down in front of the teller and said, with a completely straight face, “OK … here’s the deal.  I lost my bank card and I need a new one.  But the bank account is under a Chinese name, which is, really, my name, in Chinese, even though, um,  I can’t really prove it, so what I need you to do, ah,  is to accept that what I say is true and issue me a new card so I can get money out of the account.  OK?”

Years ago, I would have received a blank stare from the lobotomized teller followed by a languorous nod of the head; then the gears of banking process would grind, slowly-but-surely, and I would, after a timeframe best measured by the rate of mammal evolution, get my new bank card.

But this is a new day in banking in China where employees are, for the most part, in possession of their complete faculties.  The teller looked at me, blinked once, and said, without a hint of sarcasm or irony, “I’m sorry, sir, could you please repeat that?  I don’t think I understood what you were asking.” Taking him at his word, I launched, yet again, into my speech … and then about half way through, I had a moment of Zen-like clarity and could hear the raving lunatic I had become: the arrogant foreigner who, in trying to solve a problem caused by his own stupidity and lack of attention to detail, insists that everyone obey his commands based on his own convoluted logic.

“Ah,” I said.  “I see your point.”

After many calls and visits, I was able to get my card back from the bank who owned the ATM machine that ate it; however, my ICBC account is still registered with a Chinese name belonging to a person of decidedly non-Chinese ethnicity.  I have yet to go back there and prove that I am who I am and not what I appear to be and get the name changed to my real one.  Too bad my Chinese name is not Fish Lips … I might be able to get them to change it out of pity alone.


Fast Train Comin’

Nanjing Railway Station

Nanjing Railway Station

I took the train the other day, something I haven’t done for a while.  Now, usually I am a cynical git and try to find the ridiculous in everything – the blog must be fed, after all – but I am happy to report that I was initially quite impressed. First of all, the train service was excellent – my train from Shanghai to Nanjing departed right on time and, while driving would take over 4 hours, the train took just over an hour, traveling at speeds up to 320 km/hour (I apologize to my American friends … I am unable to convert that to miles or rods or els, whatever antiquated system of measurement you are using back there these days).  The seats were roomy enough for the average foreigner’s derrière, they offered complimentary beverages and I had a strong mobile signal the entire way.  I arrived quickly, efficiently and fully hydrated.  The only nod to the antiquated system was the bathrooms with throne-less squattie-potties which, if used, require the thighs of a linebacker to maintain yourself in the train-surfing stance for any period of time.

But (cue Cynical Git) while the train ride was memorable, I was left absolutely flat by the railway stations themselves. China is home to one of the best collections of historical architecture in the world – from the Great Wall to the Forbidden City to the Bund, the list of iconic structures here is nearly endless. And China has certainly not been lacking in the money to invest in rail infrastructure – China’s recent investment in their rail system has rivaled Imelda Marcos’s annual shoe expenditure as they have built about 5 squillion miles of new rail over the last 10 years.  Any burg with more than two stalks of rice and a pig got a brand new, shiny railway station.  However, similar to global airport construction theory, all of China’s new rail stations look similar, occupying an obscenely large plot of land and looking like they’ve been designed by Cavernous Buildings R Us.

The new(ish) Hongqiao Rail station in Shanghai is an excellent example of this aggressive regression towards the architectural mean.  It was built to handle the teaming hoards of Chinese tourists that descended upon Shanghai to attend the Expo in 2010 and, indeed, the station can certainly handle the volume – during its busier moments its looks like a movie made during the pre-CGI days when you actually needed real PEOPLE to make a crowd scene, like the Ten Commandments with less livestock.  Nanjing station is similar, as is Ningbo, Tianjin, Suzhou … the list goes on.

The people making the announcements that boomed through the station either all had the same training at the Charlie Brown’s Teacher School of Public Address or were just playing their trombones through the speaker system – “What??  Did they say ‘the train to Nanjing was leaving on track 5’ or ‘the rain on nanny’s bling is cleaving to black hives’???”  The ceilings vaulted miles above one’s head and the gleaming marble tile below, I’m sure, did not help audio quality. In fact, I think I could hear my own heartbeat echoing around me, a grim reminder of one’s mortality and the broken resolution made a few months ago to get more exercise.

The benches lined up in the waiting hall were nothing short of instruments of torture – after 15 minutes of sitting on the cold metal seats I had lost all feeling below my waist.  I could have wet myself and have been none the wiser for it. During the morning and afternoon rush hours every seat in the place is filled.  On my trip back home to Shanghai from Nanjing I was surrounded by 5 sleeping peasants, two of whom had found a comfy pillow on both of my shoulders. While I appreciated being treated as one of the family, I would have liked a more expanded use of my arms.

Many of the older train stations in the US and Europe are quite memorable, uniquely designed and built to withstand many years of human lives passing through their halls.  I can well remember the details of many of the train stations I’ve been in over the years and Grand Central, Stockholm Station, Paddington and the German-designed Tianjin station are all memorable, in their own way.  Today’s Chinese train stations are like an Animal Planet special on penguins – its memorable ONLY because of the immense banality of its sameness (and I don’t care what biologists say … penguin mothers can’t tell their offspring from each other either and how would a biologist know that they were always returning to the right one anyway. C’mon!).

I’m sure its quite bourgeois of me to lament the cultural demise of the old rail stations in China, particularly when that culture was infested with vermin of all kinds and whose congested plumbing made it smell like the outhouse at summer camp. There is something oddly comforting in the sameness of China’s new railway stations, like walking up to a KFC and knowing that, even though you are going to be eating crispy-coated-cardboard, its the same cardboard that you got the last 47 times you went there.

So I guess I will choose to suck it up, enjoy the quick train rides and endure the station waiting halls.  I’ll just have to set my alarm to lumber to the toilet every half hour … ’cause I still can’t feel ANYTHING down there!