Saturday, June 12, 2010

Language to make you dizzy

When I was a child, I thought America was on top of the globe and imagined the people of China had to walk around on their heads. Since I've been studying Chinese, I've started to wonder if I was right. These languages are extremely different. Any English speaker who studies Chinese will have a healthy respect for Chinese users of English. It's amazing our people understand each other at all.

Not only is Chinese a tonal language; its writing is not alphabetic, and its patterns of ordering words into sentences are mind boggling. I am increasingly able to make myself understood in restaurants and markets. My attempts make the locals giggle, just as so-called "Chinglish" amuses us (see examples. When I use my Chinese in public, colleagues here are embarrassed for me, and reflexively begin to translate. I cannot have them around when I want to practice.

The Chinese begin to learn English almost in infancy. Software displayed at the Beijing Sam's club features the ABC song. It is quite expensive in Chinese terms -- about 600 yuan, or nearly a hundred US dollars. Parents who probably cannot afford to buy it stand their children's strollers in front of a monitor as this familiar tune plays.

The right stuff

It happens on every trip. Two weeks into our stay here, I've contracted a malady I shall describe as Travelers' Trots. Joe, lucky guy, never gets it. The US Center for Disease Control estimates this condition affects anywhere from 25 to 50 per cent of all travelers. Travelers to Asia are particularly prone to the problem.

I'm hoping to address the situation discretely. I don't want to tell our Chinese hosts-- they would blame themselves. Besides, they think I am terribly old to be making a trip of this kind, and they'd get very worried. The CDC website attributes the condition to contaminated food or drinking water. But since Chinese visitors to America become similarly ill, and our food and water supply are quite safe, I wonder if Traveler's Trots could result from unfamiliar diet.

I'm going to try the tea and rice cure, and if that doesn't work, I'll try out my emergent Chinese at one of the pharmacies nearby. I've been looking around on the Internet. The medicine in the green bottle is likely the right stuff...

Friday, June 11, 2010

Bargaining Culture

Bargaining is embedded in Chinese culture. Posted prices are not final except in the largest stores. To avoid being cheated, one must bargain. This is especially true if one is a foreigner, since they ask higher prices from us.

The bargaining culture influences the workplace. It is fairly common for Western teachers to be engaged at one price only to find their compensation reduced when they're paid. Such problems can be taken before a magistrate, but I'm told such matters are universally decided in the employer's favor. Disputes over pay are best resolved via bargaining.

To the Western mind, it appears dishonest not to have a fixed price for a product or service, but the Chinese don't view it this way. The sense of appropiateness is different here, more nuanced and situation specific.

Bottom line: If you're here any length of time, learn how to bargain!

Photographs: Chinese merchants selling their wares. In these venues, bargaining is expected.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

High stakes

As in many countries, China has a special exam to determine which kids are headed for university. The kids are about fifteen and in the first year of high school when they go through the grueling two days of testing which largely determine their future. The exam and attendant procedures are standardized nation wide. I'm told it's a difficult test The sixty per cent who pass pursue a pre-university curriculum; the rest leave school and go to the work force, where they perform such exciting jobs as sweeping the streets with bamboo brooms, or working in factories and restaurants, twelve hours a day, seven days a week the rest of their working lives. A few who fail are sent to technical school.

In the event of failure, there's second a chance to retake the exam the following year, but if the young person fails again, that's it. In this competitive atmosphere, many people try to cheat, so the kids are wanded and frisked before entering the test site. There is special equipment to detect cell phone signals sent into exam rooms, in the event that students have managed to bring in their cell phones and are using them to cheat. This is a nation of one child families, and the pressure is particularly acute. When children fail the exam, families who can afford it sometimes bribe the officials to place kids in the university track.

Above: students line up to take the Guo Kao or university exam.
Below: other scenes from the examination. Note that even in an atheist
nation, there is such a thing as School Prayer.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

All aboard!

With increasing numbers of cars, Beijing is very congested. Taxis are cheap, and buses cost next to nothing, but for longer distances, the subway is quicker. The system is less extensive than London's or New York's, so sometimes you have to use a combination of subway and bus or taxi to get to a destination. Our bags were scanned before we boarded, as they are on an airline. The cars were comfortable, but rather noisy.

Photos: scenes from the Beijing subway and a subway map

What's in a name?

I haven't the faintest idea why a five inch sausage is called a "hot dog" and a fried cornmeal ball is known as a "hush puppy" since neither has anything to do with dogs. So I shouldn't have been surprised when our friend Chen couldn't tell us why the item above is termed "Blueberry mountain medicine." The lattice is constructed from raw Chinese cucumber and topped with blueberry sauce.
A crowd pleaser

In Beijing today, the Chinese government is reasonably tolerant of church attendance, though this is not so in all parts of China. However, all Chinese land is owned by the government, and restrictions are placed on how many churches can be built. There are only seven churches in all of Beijing, and it has a population of 17.4 million.

People stand in line to get into church, and the one we attended, like all Beijing churches, was packed. This was Communion Sunday, and the service was extremely moving, with familiar hymns such as "What a friend we have in Jesus" sung in Chinese. Worship services are very predictable, so I understood most of the service even without the translation headset an usher brought to our pew.

Photographs: Church in Beijing

What does tomorrow mean? It is 5:30 pm here, but at home it’s 5:00 in the morning. I leave Weihai tomorrow and make a stop in Beijing. ...