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Ni Hao, Y’all – Country Music in China

Like “government intelligence” and “student athlete”, some call “Country Music” the ultimate oxymoron…it may come from the country but it sure as heck is not music. As one of the only original American art forms (besides the Big Mac), country music has had little impact outside the U.S. borders, for which many outside U.S. borders are thankful.

Of late, I’ve been listening to a lot of Country Music. Before you call me a hick, I must state here and now, for the record, that my taste in music is varied. I love jazz, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, grunge, heavy metal, classical, ska, punk, you-name-it. What’s more, I used to play in a band that was billed as “post punk, alternative, low fi, British speed pop.” I ain’t no tobacco-chewing, truck-driving, gun-toting, red-neck American sonovabeech. At least, not usually.

No, my interest in country music is purely on an aesthetic level, on the poetry of country song, the word pictures it paints. Take the lyrics of Tim McGraw (better known as Mr. Faith Hill, one of the many men in this world that has married far above his station in life), for example. In one of his songs, the chorus goes: “I may be a real bad boy, but baby I’m a real good man.”

In the mind of a guy – where the volatile X-Y chromosome mix does not lend itself to logical thought – this line makes perfect sense.  To us, it sounds like something that might get you out of the doghouse with your significant-other-of-the-opposite-sex after a too-late-night-out-with-the-guys. Put that lost puppy look on your face, look deep into her eyes and in a gravelly twang sing, “I may be a real bad boy … but baby I’m a real good man.”

Yea, right…that might work for maybe a nanosecond. And then she’ll whup you upside the head, tell you to act your age and “if-you-think-I-am-that-stupid-then-you-got-another-thing-coming-buster-npw-go-out-and-clean-the-garage!!” Of course you don’t think she is that stupid. But you do think she should listen to more country music. However, maybe she thinks you should look more like Tim McGraw.

Of course, China, too, boasts many a bard. From the Tang Dynasty Daoists, who used poetry to query the meaning of life to modern Shanghai advertisers touting plastic surgery as the answer, this country has an inborn sensitivity to the power of words. With so much in common, then, why is country music not more popular in China? There’s Chinese pop music, hip-hop, rap, rock-and-roll … but no country.

Which is a cryin’ shame. Just imagine the creative possibilities. I have. In fact I’ve started writing a few country tunes, like this one about lost love: “You got on a Beijing-bound bus, said goodbye, leaving just the sting of diesel fumes in my eye.” I get teary just thinking about it.

Here’s another one about food: “Honey, you’re a hot little thing, like a big helping of Gong Bao Ji Ding.”

Or perhaps you’d prefer this little tribute to Nancy Sinatra, an ode to Chinese utensils: “These sticks were made for choppin’”?  [Read it out loud … and … wait for it … ah, now you get it!].

The possibilities are endless. Women…say you have a date and the guy is not quite … uh … up to standards. Try “You think you’re a Plaza 66 lover, but you’re really just Subway Knock-off Market under the covers.” Ouch. The guy will have to go out and buy himself a fake DVD just to ease the pain.

Of course, all the songs above must be sung in a good ol’ US southern accent … not a southern Chinese accent or you’ll sound like a bunch of Hong Kong real estate agents juiced up on Courvoisier and howling karaoke. The way to sing Country Music is to slow down your speech and stretch your vowels waaaaaay out. Like my buddy from Texas who pronounces my first name with two syllables: “Kee-ant”. You gotta sound like that (or “lahk they-at”).

Now that you have the idea sing along with me, in full voice and with feeling …

You can keep them wide open spaces, where the deer and the antelope roam

Just give me the grit, the grime and the crowds, of Shanghai, my home sweet home

The breeze from Suzhou Creek on a hot August day can make a grown man cry

And the MSG in my daily lunch means I wont have to be embalmed when I die

I made it from Hongqiao to Lujiazui and was only 3 hours late

And the death-defying driver I had was an expert in tempting the fates.

Some think it insane that, at Shanghai days end, you are relieved to have survived

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


What’s in a name?

I was at a restaurant the other day and wanted to get the server’s attention. Now the standard etiquette at food establishments in China – particularly local ones – is that you are allowed (nay, even encouraged) to raise your voice and yell for service, yell as if you were three pints into a prime day at the Hong Kong Sevens. So, employing vocal chords that have been known to shatter glass, I shouted “Hey…xiao jie” and a young lady immediately appeared at my table.

To differentiate myself from the other louts screaming for the wait staff, I thought it wise to establish a degree of intimacy. Xiao jie (“Miss”) is too formal, and I looked to her name tag. I discovered her name was 57103. “Hmm…” I thought to myself, “this is interesting; a moniker not normally found in the ranks of the venerated Zhang’s, Wang’s and Liu’s of the lao bai xing” (literally, “old hundred names”).

How sad, in a land where naming people is such an arduous and time consuming task, to be reduced to a number. This is a minor tragedy, I thought. Chinese names are beautiful, rich in symbolism and possess a sense of history that places the bearer securely within the culture. I’m sure that the waitress’s parents took great care to choose a suitable name for their daughter. They likely searched through the family records, considered the time of her birth, and came up with a name that reflected their hopes and dreams. What infamy, then, to be reduced to number 57103.

Finding an appropriate Chinese name for a foreigner is, perhaps, even more difficult than it is for the native-born. Many opt for the easy way out – simply translating the sound of their name into Chinese phonemes, with interesting results. I knew a guy named William Wasserstrom, a name that is tough enough in English but was rendered ridiculous in Chinese: Wei Li Ya Mu – Wa Su Er Su Tu Mu. People had to take several breaths and pack a lunch to get through that name. It sounds like a Shanghainese rapper with Tourette’s Syndrome. Then, too, the characters used to render a name like that are devoid of meaning. If one were to translate old William’s name, literally, it would mean “Future Power Oh! Wood – Wow! Custom Ear Revive Earth Eye.” Frank Zappa couldn’t have named a kid worse. Most foreigners don’t mind, but if you want to belong here then you should find a “real” name.

My Chinese name was chosen by a committee formed by several of my closest Chinese friends. Their mission: to find a name that matched my personality. The most appropriate, “Donkey-Face-Monkey-Boy”, does not translate well in Chinese so instead they chose 高 德凯 or Gao Dekai. Gao is a traditional family name, but it also means “tall” and alludes to my height. De means “morality” and Kai, “victory”, which says something about my successful struggles with sin (or, more likely, pokes fun at my failures with same). In short, Gao Dekai is a nice, solid, very Chinese name.

On the other hand, some of my Chinese friends and acquaintances have been given unfortunate names in English. In the days when I was a teacher, one class boasted a Lincoln, a Washington and a Hemingway. Lincoln and Washington failed their history class, and Hemingway got a “D”’ in English Composition.

Others sport meteorological monikers: I know a Snow, a Rain and even a Breeze (and I’m acquainted with a fellow who should be named Earthquake for his ability to kill a conversation at a party). I know a Pony Wang, who fancies himself an urban cowboy, and a Moonbeam Liu which sounds rather sexy, but not for a guy, which he happens to be. Another acquaintance, Dolphin Xiu (aka “Flipper”), is exceptionally smart and happy-go-lucky — his name seems to fit. And for all I know he might like to swim and eat seafood. I had a client once whose family name was Gu and he chose the English name Green. I’ll pause a moment and let you figure that one out.

Every once in a while, my Chinese friends ask me to help choose an English name for themselves or even their child. This makes me feel very uncomfortable. The responsibility is too great and a wrong choice can mark a person with bad karma for life. I have trouble choosing a necktie, never mind something as serious as a name.
I once knew a young man surnamed Wang, who approached me one day and said: “Mr. Kent, I want you to help me pick an English name.”

“OK,” I said, my voice aquiver, “have you anything in mind?”

“Well, I like the name Satellite,” he said, with a proud grin.

“Um… ‘Satellite Wang’? Are you sure about that?” I asked.

“Yes. Satellites are very modern and are very strong. And I want to be modern and strong. Besides, my best friend said it was a good name for me.”

“Who is your best friend?” I asked, fearing the answer.

“Oh, his name is Auditorium Li.”

You know, somehow 57103 sounds like she should be counting her blessings.

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.