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The China Handicap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Babble on – the challenge of making sense in China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Rock Star Haircut

Taken while standing in line at the Hong Kong airport

Change is hard. I just moved to a new apartment in a very different part of Shanghai and, though I love my new place, the surroundings are taking some getting used to.  But I now know where to get my groceries; I have my local restaurants for good dumplings; the little corner joint that sells freshly fried sesame balls on Sunday mornings; I know which stands have the best fruit (and its NOT the squinty-eyed chap that sold me that bad watermelon … yea, buddy, I’m talking about you!).  So yes, I’m settling in nicely, thank you very much.

But the one thing that has NOT settled well, is where to get a haircut. Now, I hope that those of you who know me don’t consider me a vain person, at least not any more vain than the average middle-aged white guy who sees his youth slipping slowly away from him, thinking back on the “what-ifs” of life and how, as a young man, everything seemed possible and I was invincible and nothing could stop me so, naturally, I am grasping at everything I possibly can to shore up my crumbling male ego! (Er … sorry about that.  Probably should have saved that for my therapist).

Anyhow, I don’t consider myself too hung up on my appearance – I like to look good, but I know that the good Lord only provided me with a limited amount raw material so I tend to lower my expectations … and part of lower expectations is that I have mostly avoided the mental anguish of finding the perfect place to get a good haircut. I figure that if someone can make my hair shorter, get it mostly even all around and avoid lopping off an ear in the process, that, by definition, is a “good” haircut. But the place that I had been going to was suddenly not so convenient for me, and finding a new place was, to be honest, a bit daunting.

However, I had some guidance in my quest because, for the past 5 years, I have been going to a chain salon called Wenfeng.  Well, “salon” is a bit to much for this place … its kind of a mash-up between a barber shop and a fast food joint. And, true to my personal taste, this is not the place for haute couture in Shanghai.  This is the Great Clips of China. Just a place to get a haircut.  The stylists – if you can call them that – all have these fashionable cuts, but they go a real salon to get them done and can’t really do it themselves.  Nope, Wenfeng is a place you go when you want your hair shorter and you are rather attached to your ears and would like to remain so.

Wenfeng is also a place that gives the absolute BEST scalp massages in the Milky Way.  This is a feature of most hair salons in China – and, indeed, throughout Asia – where, as they are washing your hair before the cut, the washer will give you a scalp massage.  OMG … it is the BEST feeling in the world!  I have a hard time from keeping my leg from chattering like a Golden Retriever getting a tummy rub. And the reason that Wenfeng is so good is that the young women they hire all come from the countryside where they grew up slapping pigs around and hauling grain to market. These girls have finger strength that could poke a fourth hole in a bowling ball.

When I first started going to Wenfeng I purchased a 会员卡 (hui yuan ka), also known as a “VIP” card.  You pay a certain amount of money and then use the card to pay for services, getting a decent discount besides.  I wasn’t quite clear on the discount policy but I figured that I was going to get my haircut at least once a month so I put a couple hundred bucks down on a card.  Well, it turns out that my discount is HUGE so each haircut comes to something like a dollar fifty and it seems I haven’t made a DENT in that card in 5 years, so I was kind of stuck looking for another Wenfeng near me.

I found one, about a half-hour walk from me, and went there last weekend.  I walked in and a bell dinged, signifying the arrival of a new customer.  There were about 20 workers in there and another 10 customers, and ALL of them turned towards me and the place fell silent. It felt like I had just walked into the women’s restroom or a secret cult meeting, I felt SO conspicuous!  After 10 seconds of silence, a slight murmur went around the place … 老外,老外 (lao wai, lao wai).  “Foreigner, look at the foreigner!”

Then the workers started scrambling and calling out a name of one of the employees. A young woman came up to me and, in halting, nervous English said, “Hello … you want hair?”  I think she meant to say “do you want a hair CUT” but the question was appropriate either way and I was able to nod my head with a clear conscience.  Then I said, in Chinese, “Yes, I would like a haircut, please.”  There was a gasp from the entire store, like I had just turned shampoo into wine.  “He speaks Chinese… he speaks Chinese!!”  The girl broke into a huge smile of relief and led me to a chair in front of a large mirror.

As she started washing my hair, I looked at her in the mirror and said, “You don’t get many foreigners in here, do you?”  She said, “No, you are the first one we’ve ever had, and we’ve been open for over a year.”  We had a nice chat, asking each other where we were from, how we liked Shanghai, etc.  Then others came by and got into the conversation, asking their own questions: how old was I, how tall was I and how much did I weigh, did I have children. Then someone yelled across the room, “Hey … ask him what he thought of China in the Olympics!” If someone were to have asked me my opinion on how to balance the US national budget, I would not have been surprised.

When it came time to get my haircut, my hair-washer found the oldest, most experienced stylist in the place.  He looked about 15.  He sat me in another chair and started looking at my hair, pinching it between his fingers, feeling the texture and saying “hmmm…” to himself.  I was the first foreigner he had ever met, he said, and he wasn’t really familiar with foreigner hair.  Chinese hair can be tough, like a horses mane, but mine has been inherited from my Scandinavian ancestors and resembles the light down on a duckling’s butt.  It has no natural shape, no style of its own … it grows out of my head and then succumbs to gravity, falling in whatever manner it can.

He started cutting, slowly, getting the hang of things as he went along.  He saw that he really had no chance of “styling” anything up there … he just had to make it shorter. Then he came to the top of my head and noticed that there is a part of my scalp where the hair is thinner than the rest … and with my wimpy hair, I’m talking THIN.  He spent about 5 minutes trying to comb things this way and that and then fluffing my hair up in order to hide the spot.  I don’t “fluff” and I told him so, saying not to worry about it because that’s just the way it was.  He laughed and said that Chinese men were VERY concerned about going bald. I said, “That’s OK … I’m not Chinese. I’ve got other problems, but not that.”

He was done in 20 minutes and it looked pretty good.  I went to the front with my new entourage in tow and produced my card.  There was another gasp – not only was I a foreigner, but I was a VIP customer!  I walked out of there with people waving and saying goodbye.  I felt like Glinda the Good Witch of the West floating off in her bubble with people running after me.

There are very few places in Shanghai these days where foreigners have NOT been … we seem to have invaded, cockroach-like, into most corners of this amazing city and we don’t attract too much notice anymore.  But everyone now and then, a Wenfeng Day comes along and any middle-aged balding white guy can feel like a rock star.  Shallow?  You bet. Desperate for attention? Um … duh!!  In need of professional help?  Yea, probably.  But I don’t know of a therapist around that will make you feel better AND give you a scalp massage and a decent haircut for a buck fifty!