The heating in my Shanghai apartment went out the other day. Not a big deal, you think … its after Spring Festival so that means Spring is here, right? And who needs heating when it’s Spring, right? Not so. I guess the weather numpties here don’t have smartphones to look up “vernal equinox” on Wikipedia. The temperature in Shanghai has been hovering in the single digits Celsius, a system of measurement designed to make things feel much colder, farther and heavier than they really are.
So I called the building management on the intercom. The conversation went something like this:
Me: My heater isn’t working.
Voice on the Other End: Mphrp grrb fizzle brap
Me: Oh, OK. Thank you
It was good to know that Charlie Brown’s teacher was able to find employment after those annoying cartoons ran out. But I was no closer to having a solution to my heater problem
I have a box of tools here, so I took them out, hoping that inspiration would strike. Pliers, screwdrivers, a hammer, a thingamajig and a whosawhatsis, all critical tools for the mechanically inept. But I got a whole lotta nuthin’. They stared back at me as if to say, “Why are you disturbing us. Put us back, you might hurt yourself. And hey, its cold in here … fix the damn heat!”
I went back to stare at my thermostat to see if I could figure out the problem. That’s what my father always did. “Let’s take a look and see what we’ve got here,” he would say whenever something didn’t work. I remember looking up at him, awestruck, this Superhero with a toolbelt of Batman-like complexity and a look of steely confidence. He didn’t use the word “thingamajig” … he called things by their proper names. To me, a tape measure was something to pull out and watch snap back. To him, it was a tool that gave him useful information when he was taking a look and seeing what he’d got there.
So I stared at the thermostat, to see what I had there, but again, nothing. It turned out that I was staring at the water meter. No wonder I didn’t get anything. I finally found the thermostat and glared at it. I started to analyze it – small, beige box, squarish, a few buttons, some numbers that seemed to be changing, getting smaller. I pushed the “plus” button, assuming that it might adjust the temperature higher. It turns out that the thermostat was already set at a temperature more appropriate for firing pottery, so I shrewdly guessed that it wasn’t the setting that was the problem.
I remembered that my dad would always open things – the hood of the car, the back of the stove – and that seemed to get him where he was going. I looked for a little door or something. Nothing. That sucker was sealed up tighter that David Koch’s wallet at a Hillary Clinton fundraiser.
Dad used to talk to things, “C’mon, you stupid bolt, loosen up!” So I talked to it, “Hey … um, thermostat. This is Kent. Your renter. Um … I’m freezing my patootie off out here, how about coughing up some heat.” Nothing. Then I noticed that the thermostat was made by Siemens … so I tried out some of my rusty high school German: “Hallo. Hans geht ins Kino und Monika sind im boot.” (Hello. Hans went to the theater and Monica is in the boat.) Again, nothing. It seems I had the cheaper model of thermostat, the one without the human speech processor.
Maybe the problem wasn’t with the thermostat … maybe something was blocking the heating ducts. One time, when I was a kid, I remember my dad pulling a dead (and very dry) bird out of the dryer duct. Shanghai is decidedly lacking in wildlife. We’ve got some birds, rats, feral taxi drivers, but that’s about all. I decided that I did not want to find some mummified Shanghai taxi guy curled up in the fetal position in my heating register, so I didn’t bother looking.
So I did what I usually did when things didn’t work. “OK, two can play at that game … if you won’t work,” I told it, “I’m just going to shut you off.” I had to go out of town anyway so I just turned it off. Maybe it needed a vacation, some me-time; get away from the rat race, the constant demands to produce warmth and comfort for people, people who never thanked you, never said how much they appreciated the hard work.
I returned a couple of days later to an even colder apartment (concrete walls in China are constructed with some strange technology that radiates cold) and absentmindedly turned on the heat. It was about an hour later – when things were decidedly warmer – that I remembered the problems earlier and went back to the thermostat to check. Yes, it was warmer. I felt the air blowing out of the heating registers … yes, it was truly warm, almost hot (I then went back to the thermostat to turn down the setting to “turkey basting”). I had heat again.
Don’t you wish all of life could be this way? Something isn’t working, just shut it down and give it a rest. I look at my life today and there are areas where I could sure use a hard re-boot; press ctrl-alt-delete to restart things. But alas, I’m left only with more banal thingamajigs and whosawhatsis, a critical stare and a firm self-talking to. Maybe I should try it in German.
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I am a golfer. Or rather, I play golf. No, that’s still too strong. Let’s just say that, on occasion, I take a few swings at a little white ball with graphite-composite sticks in a feeble attempt to sink said ball in a small hole you cannot see. My sliced drives move left to right faster than Hillary Clinton at a Nebraska town hall meeting and I have the putting touch of a one-armed stevedore just reaching the peak of a quintuple espresso buzz. And like everyone else, I pay dearly for the privilege.
Serious golfers say they love golf “because it offers a great lesson in the game of life.” They claim it teaches patience and improves mental toughness. It’s a game of the mind, not body. Yadda yadda yadda. I thought it was nothing more than an opportunity to get some fresh air and learn new swear words.
In fact, golf is very unlike life, mainly because of the “handicap”, a numerical calculation of one’s playing ability, or in my case, the lack thereof. A low-handicapper is a very good golfer and, in a competition with a high-handicapper he must spot that less-gifted person a certain number of strokes on the round. The theory here is that it evens the playing field and allows golfers of unequal abilities to compete as equals.
I don’t get it. Why would unequals think that they could compete? If you can sink a 40-foot putt on an angled glass surface with a wicked cross wind during an earthquake while I cannot get a ball fitted with a GPS downhill with a tailwind through a three-foot pipe into a manhole, well, I conclude you are the “better” golfer and deserve to “win”. The handicap, therefore, is an irrational, truth-destroying practice. Postmodernism was embraced by golfers long before tenured professors.
Then I got to thinking … my golf game is a lot like my life in China: the misunderstandings, misinterpretations and bad decisions I make in China are uncomfortably close to my stunted attempts at driving, chipping and putting. And like my golfing partners, my Chinese friends and colleagues shake their heads sadly and just hope I don’t maim someone with an errant shot. So what if I was allowed a “China Handicap”? Something that makes me equal and able to compete on a more level playing field in a place where, even after all these years, I find my mental capacity inversely proportional to my height when it comes to really understanding China.
For example, I should be entitled to a few strokes when shopping at the street market. Rather than be subject to the here-comes-the-foeigner-lets-double-the-price game, the “real” cost of the goods would flash above the proprietor’s head as well as the price paid by the last three locals. As a result, I would neither get ripped off nor walk away from a good deal fearing I was still getting ripped off.
With a China Handicap my emotional outbursts about the traffic, frustrating bureaucrats and my landlord would disappear. Like the locals, I could maintain Buddha-like calm in such situations. My China Handicap would be Ritalin to my Tourette’s, my emotional Teflon against China’s daily frustrations.
A China Handicap would eliminate the tones in spoken Chinese, without changing my ability to be understood. Currently, when I speak Chinese, the listener often gets either faithful reproduction of the tone or accurate use of the tone, but not both at the same time. I was told once that my Chinese sounded like I was from Sichuan province. I took that as a compliment until I learned that the Sichuanese have a reputation of using the wrong tones in their Mandarin. Sure, the loss of tones would rob the language of its melodic lilt (when spoken by a gifted elocutionist), but at least I would stop confusing “mother” with “horse”. The trade-off is not a bad one.
As for the Shanghai dialect, it would automatically be converted to perfect Mandarin when my China Handicap is applied, whereas now it sounds to me like a bird who’s tongue has been numbed while their beak shifts into overdrive.
My China Handicap would also convert written Chinese to phonetics, eliminating the inconvenient need for studying and memorizing characters. Out go the flashcards, thumb-worn dictionaries and nightmares of sitting exams on a Whoopee Cushion in front of itchy-finger-triggered Tang Dynasty poets armed with squirt guns filled with lime Jell-O. Don’t ask.
You know what, I deserve a China Handicap, gosh darnit! I deserve to be judged less harshly. I should be able to compete equally with my betters without actually having to put the time in, working hard to improve my game here. I need to stop thinking of myself as a loser. With a China Handicap I would be better than what I am now: commercially-challenged, emotionally-immature and linguistically-stunted. Is that too much to ask? If you agree, let me know. It’s tee time this weekend and I need to complete a foursome …
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I received a note in my mailbox from Shanghai Gas – the local utility not the result from consuming the local cuisine – saying that they needed to send a technician to change the gas lines to my stove and asking if I would be home between, I think, 9:00 a.m. Saturday and 2017 (yea, they’re not great planners at Shanghai Gas). The techno-dude came, miraculously, on the appointed Saturday morning, and did his gas magic, pronouncing his job done in 10 minutes. As I walked him to the door, he said off-handedly, “Oh, when they restart the gas later this afternoon, your old stove might not work with the new gas system. Have a nice day.”
Um … what? So, precisely, did you end up “fixing”??
Sure enough, later that afternoon the gas came on but my stove did not … or it did but with a flame the power of a mosquito’s disposable lighter. Certainly not enough to fire up a wok. So what to do? I guess I needed to get a new stove. I called my landlord who came back with a version of “I’m not going to do anything … it was OK when I last saw it”, so I guess is was up to me to get a new gas range and install it.
That should be no problem for me. I come from a long line of do-it-yourselfers, strong, practical men who can fix anything with a pair pliers, a length of twine and a well-used handkerchief. My father always repaired the family car himself – in the days before you needed a computer science degree from M.I.T. – as did his father before him. In the same Mr. Fix-it Family tradition, my brother can completely rewire and re-plumb his kitchen before breakfast. In short, the handyman DNA is part of my genetic inheritance.
I, however, paddle around in the shallow end of the family gene pool, sputtering and getting water up my nose. I don’t know how to plug in a hammer; I can’t distinguish between a dime and a ten-penny nail, and I use terms like “whosa-whatsis” and “thingy-bobby” to describe anything more complicated than a mechanical pencil.
Consequently, not long after I arrived in China to teach, back in the days when most everything here broke down on a regular basis, I soon found that my apartment had become a sort of burial ground of broken things, the place where man-made objects came to die a dishonorable death. The week after I moved in, my desk lamp went up in a mini mushroom cloud of smoke and sparks. Once it expired, I was reduced to correcting tests by candlelight, a fact that I regrettably confessed to a Chinese colleague. He gave me that puzzled look I so often receive, the one that says: “and you can feed yourself?” That look was accompanied by advice: “So just call someone to fix it.”
Sure enough, I collared the campus maintenance man, the same guy who was in charge of the campus screwdriver. He agreed to look at my lamp; indeed, he fixed it quicker than you can say “why didn’t you call me in the first place?” This was a revelation to me…I didn’t have to remain a victim of my own mechanical ineptitude.
China is not DIY (Do It Yourself); it is YDI (You Do It). There is no need to spend good money on a set of expensive tools to fix your bicycle when you can find 90 bicycle repairmen within three meters of wherever you might be (on your broken down bike). Take it from me, these guys could get Lance Armstrong back up and running again in seconds flat. Except for the drug charges. You’re kinda on your own on that one, Lancy-pants.
So back to the stove … if it was going to be able to ever cook again, I would need to do something about it so I went to Yolo, a local home improvement store to look at gas ranges. I saw gleaming, ready-to-install appliances; easy-to-apply paint with names like Shanghai Industrial Sunrise (a mottled orange); and numerous, simple-to-use, shiny hand tools. All of which gave rise to that all-too-familiar nervous twitching of my lower duodenum. Yes, these objects were awaiting buyers more capable than this humble blogger.
I looked around at all of the gas ranges. My knowledge of gas extends to giving it some, stepping on it and passing it … I know nothing about gas appliances. Typically, men in such a situation will try to fake it, to pretend we know something when we really don’t. Not me. I’m a firm believer in the 12-step method to home improvement: Step 1: admit that you need help. Step 2: seek the assistance of a higher power (in this case Ms. Yang at the Yolo Home Improvement store in Shanghai). I walked up to Ms. Yang, told her that I need a new stove, gave her the measurements (I can, usually, operate a tape measure) and then told her to tell me what to buy. She showed me something. I asked for something cheaper. She showed me something else. I asked “is it easy to install”? She said, “delivery and installation are free with purchase.” I firmly resisted kissing her and said, “I’ll take it!” I was in and out of the store in 10 minutes, flat.
I walked out of there with a nearly tangible sense of the familiar. There I was, back in the shallow end of the gene pool where the water was warm and someone else was plunging into the deep end on my behalf. I hope they can fix the plumbing while they are down there.
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Look Ma … mountains! The view from my Beijing hotel window last week.
Last week on a business trip to Beijing, I woke up in my hotel room at my usual early hour, well before sunrise; a time normally reserved for military invasions, heart attacks and urgent cries from your four year-old that her tummy hurts, followed by the inevitable purge that makes her tummy stop hurting. I was sitting at my computer, doing emails when the sky outside started to lighten and faint outlines of buildings started to appear. However, as I glanced outside occasionally, I started to notice a strange sight outside my west-facing window … very tall, lumpy formations off in the distance, like a giant teenager had just run into his giant house and had dumped his giant jacket and backpack on the ground for his giant mom to give him a giant lecture about picking up after himself (it turns out that size has no influence on behaviors of teenagers. Who knew?). But what was slowly being revealed to me was not the result of a careless teenager of excessive side – it was mountains. Mountains of mountains, standing proudly in the morning mist, evoking the paintings of Tang Dynasty poets playing chess in the shadows cast by the rising sun.
And then it struck me … I haven’t seen the mountains outside of Beijing since I was actually IN those mountains with a client last year on a trek to the Great Wall. Normally, the mountains around Beijing are but a rumor and memory to those living IN Beijing because the excessive pollution makes seeing the building across the street a challenge, let alone the mountains 30 kilometers away. To say that Beijing is polluted is like saying that Edward Snowden can’t keep a secret – its impossible to emphasize enough the sheer truth of the statement. Right around the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese government started making a big deal about how many “blue sky days” there were because of the pollution control measures implemented to protect athletes and spectators alike. By most measures, pollution control at the time was a moderate success (though the authorities’ definitions of a “blue” sky seems rather color-blind at times).
There are scientists who have a poor enough social life so as to specialize in pollution (“Hi, I’m Bob, I study scum. What do you do? Hello? Hello??”) and they say that the main cause of the Beijing pollution is the exhaust of a squillion cars pushed by breezes from the ocean far to the southwest piling up against those picturesque mountains to the north. A steaming bowl of particulate matter. Every Beijing resident and their parakeet owns a car and insists on driving it into the city to work every day. The authorities tried to put controls in place a few years ago limiting cars on the road based on their license plates, odd numbered ones on certain days and evens on others. Instead of looking for alternatives in carpools or public transportation, the enterprising Beijingers with more money than sense simply purchased another car with the opposite plate so they had options on all days. A couple of pairs of shoes, I understand. Two coats? Ok. But two BMWs??
One day last year, Beijing registered an air quality index of over 800, a figure normally assigned to forest fires and coal mines. There was a color to the sky that doesn’t have a Pantone number but if a trained medical professional saw it on a scan of a human body, they would recommend that the owner of that body seek immediate medical attention. Take a deep breath and you’d chip a tooth. So to suddenly have a day so clear that one could see the mountains was a major shock to the system, as if you’d been living your life with a toothache and then, after a visit to the dentist, it didn’t hurt. You realized what awful circumstances you’d been living under in the first place
Now here in Shanghai we can’t boast that we have it much better. There are many a day when I look out my 25th floor apartment window and struggle to see more than a ten or twelve blocks away. But in Beijing, it’s a whole ‘nuther world … you’d struggle to see the ground from the 25th floor on some days. I ask my Beijing friends and colleagues if they mind it and I get the same response from hard-core Minnesotans when asked about the winter weather – a resigned shrug and a what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it sigh.
But secretly, I think the Beijingers like the fact that they can put up with the smog, like it’s some sign of moral superiority that they can breathe in tiny particles of grit that permanently damage their lungs. It something in the way that they try to take a deep breath without wincing and their eyes watering. They’ll change their tune in 20 years when the traffic will be twenty times worse when in addition to the cars, every pedestrian will be pushed around in an iron lung.
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A friend of mine was supposed to meet me for lunch in Shanghai the other day, but he was late. Typical. His mother says that he was born two weeks after his due date and that set the pattern for the rest of his life. But when I called his mobile phone I heard a cryptic message saying, in English: “The mobile phone subscriber you dialed is power off now.” Yeah … that about describes him: totally “Power Off.”
For me, one of the many joys of living in China is experiencing the cacophony of languages, a daily grab-bag of accents and dialects. I’m never sure what is going to come out of someone’s mouth or even what it might mean when it does come out. It is in part my own fault for traveling so much. Just when I get used to the bird-talk of Shanghai taxi drivers, I’m off to Beijing where they speak with mouths full of marbles and then to the tonal loop-de-loops of Hong Kong where trying to follow a simple conversation makes me airsick.
English, as it is used in China, may be source of frustration, but it also provides plenty of fun. And far be it from me to criticize anyone who speaks English as a second language. I am an American and we can’t even speak our native tongue properly, so anyone that tries for two or more deserves my admiration and awe.
But when it comes to official announcements and public messages in China, it seems to me that more attention should be paid to correct usage (and common sense). The flight announcements at the airport in Shanghai always begin with: “Announcing a flight from Shanghai to …” and proceed to name the flight number and destination. But why announce the departure location? I know I am in Shanghai because I am sitting in the Shanghai airport. If I wanted to leave from Beijing but was sitting in Shanghai, I would have bought a ticket with that new airline, the one that is able to fly outside the time-space continuum (I think it’s called Quantum Air).
While I’m on the subject of air travel, here’s another term I hear frequently: “equipment reallocation” as in “we regret to inform you that the flight will be delayed because of ‘equipment reallocation.'” I assume it means that my plane is being “reallocated” to another route and not being turned into a youth hostel; or a two-lane bowling alley; or a very thin Karaoke bar. If so, I would prefer to hear the honest, if brutal, truth: “Attention, we are pleased to announce that flight number 5 will now be on time because we have reallocated the airplane from somewhere else and have given it to you. Look over at gate 10 and you will see the poor schlubs without an airplane who have been told that it has been ‘reallocated.’ You should feel vastly superior to them. Altogether now … nyah-nyah-na-boo-boo!”
Nyah-nyah-na-boo-boo may not be found in Webster’s, but then a lot of what I see written in Shanghai falls outside the norm. Especially in advertising. I once saw a banner that was wrapped around a building; in English, in three meter tall type, touting a new restaurant called “Bread and Butter.” However, the syllables of the last word had been separated so, when viewed from one angle, it said “Bread and Butt.” Yes, excessive starch will cause one to gain weight, but do they need to rub it in?
At a local hypermart, I remember seeing two signs posted above a range of disposable goods — paper plates, wooden chopsticks and the like. The sign in Chinese said: 一次性用品, literally “one-time use items”. However, the English sign said: “A Time Sex Thing” (the character 性 is sometimes used to refer to sex). I guess the translator had been taught that sex sells.
In the end, the real heroes of this story are the well-meaning citizens of this great country – my friends, neighbors and colleagues – who are subject to the abuse we foreigners rain on their beloved language. I constantly mess up my tones and call someone’s mother a horse. I never remember the difference between “orphanage” (孤儿院 gu er yuan) and “kindergarten” (幼儿园 (you er yuan), a distinction that is important to most parents. I also can never remember the difference in writing “buy” (买) and “sell” (卖), bringing no end of frustration to my financial controller who does know the difference between “revenue” and “expense”.
So it works both ways. Chinese amuse themselves with the linguistic mistakes of foreigners, and vice versa. Such is human nature. For which I am truly sorry. But a sign I saw in a local teahouse sums it up best: “Humanistic refreshments cannot usually be located but here”.
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