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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”.

A Shanghai Halloween

You may not have noticed, but we just passed through a major holiday. It used to be known in Shanghai simply as “October 31” but recently the date has taken on its American name: “Halloween”. As a card-carrying American, I have to object: I know Halloween, and this local version, sir, is not the real thing. It is nothing more than an excuse for nightclubs to promote more drink ‘specials’ (as if most people around here needed another reason to drink or needed to feel any more special about it).

No, the real Halloween, the holiday of my memories, is far more innocent. It is for children, children who travel door-to-door in a costume and beg candy from total strangers and then come home to stuff said candy into their facial orifices (yes, there are documented cases of Whoppers stuck in 5 year old nostrils … a sad, sad situation).

Years ago, when my kids were young, we attempted to recreate this festivity in Gubei, with some foreign friends. Now, Gubei lies in the heart of the expatriate ghetto in Shanghai. My foreign friends lived in an American suburban-style housing development, complete with vinyl siding and the largest marshalling of grass in the city at that time. As such, it seemed to be begging for a Halloween party.

Our two kids were dressed in Winnie-the-Pooh and a Dalmatian costumes, their sartorial tribute to the ancient America deity, Diz Nee. Our family joined with a gang of about ten other families, including a couple Americans but mostly Asians of various origins. For many of the Asian kids, this was their first time out on a Halloween jaunt, and some were a bit confused. I tried explaining the meaning of Halloween, and received a befuddled response:

Kid:  Um…OK, let me get this straight. I dress up in this gosh-awful costume, knock on my neighbor’s door, yell some odd incantation and they put candy in my bag?

Me: Yep, that’s about it.

Kid: God bless America!!

For me, the best part of the evening was seeing the looks on the faces of the home owners who, as Americans, forgot it was Halloween, or as non-American foreigners didn’t know such a crazy thing existed. The Americans scrambled for something to give the kids; the others ran for the back door. I remember one elderly Asian woman who answered the door, only to be greeted by a herd of sugar-blitzed, costumed kids yelling at her to “do something or else”. The “or else” was left unclear. Her eyes opened wide, her face turned as pale as the proverbial Halloween ghost, and then she slammed the door. I am sure she made a bee-line to the phone and booked a one-way ticket on the first flight out.

We must have spent a good hour and a half traipsing from door to door, getting more hits than misses and having a whee of a time. Here I must confess that I really had a good time that night, walking with other parents, beaming proudly at our cute kids, repeating for the umpteenth time variations of the phrase “No, you may not unwrap all your candy and run naked through it … wait until we get home!”

Through it all, I had a very strong sense of how groups of people, quite literally recreate their native culture abroad. Halloween in China is not a “natural” occurrence: stores do not stock up on enough mini-Snickers to give most of the developing world the sugar blues, and those annoying Charlie Brown TV specials are not shown on TV (enough, already, with the Great Pumpkin shtick, Linus – lose the blanket and get into counseling, for goodness sake!). As I’ve outlined above, if you wish to celebrate the wonder of Halloween in Shanghai, you have to provide the spirit yourself. And that is hard work.

But we did it. Why? Well, ostensibly it was for our children’s benefit, the one time of the year when a Roman-style eating orgy (with candy) is acceptable. But to be honest, I conjured the ghost of Halloween past, not for the kids, but for me. I did it because I needed a bubble of familiarity, in what is still to me, after all this time, a “foreign” culture. I went trick-or-treating with my kids in Shanghai because I remember pictures of me doing the same thing when I was their age (though I seem to recall less smog in family photos). In short, it was not the event that was special; rather, it was the memory I created of the event.

But the honesty with which I expose my own motives should be kept from my kids. Let them think that this Halloween in Shanghai is, somehow, normal; that every child here rides a taxi to some neo-American suburban boil on the bum of this great city to scam polyunsaturated fats from the biggest collection of white folks they have seen since the last visit home. I want my kids to grow up with the sort of “natural” memories that I hold dear. At the same time, I want to provide them with the opportunity I never had – to live in harmony amongst a wide spectrum of cultures. Of course that means on a future October 31 I will engage in the following enlightened conversation with my kids:

“Dad, can I borrow one of your ties and your black wingtip shoes?”

“Uh, yeah … I guess so.  What do you want them for?”

“It’s for my Halloween costume … I’m going as a Cultural Imperialist!”

Don’t laugh … that day is closer than you think.

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!

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.