Now you know! Cold weather = dog season

One of the fun things about China is fresh fruit in season. That means good fruit and it gives a fun rhythm to the year. And due to traditional Chinese ideas about health, fruit is not the only thing that has a season:


上市 “Dog meat is on the market!”

Our innocently unapologetic corner of Qingdao is so endearing. Why wouldn’t you put up a big “DOG MEAT” sign right outside your restaurant? This is about a 10-minute walk from our place. We regularly eat their 老醋花生 and 肉末云豆。 Have not tried their dog yet. This is one of several (as in, over ten) places within walking distance to get dog meat. That’s just how we roll in Licun ().

Dog meat is hard to find in the summer because dog meat, like donkey and mutton, makes you 上火 — it ups your internal “fire”. I’m not even going to attempt to explain what that means, but your fire being too low or too high (usually too high) is a bad thing, and results in acne and colds and stuff. But in the winter it’s cold, so your “fire” can stand a little reinforcement. Or something. I guess.

For more about eating dogs:

For more about Chinese healthiness:

Chairman Mao the good luck god

Walked out to the street market at the entrance to our neighbourhood to get some bǐng before dinner yesterday. The late afternoon sun was sparkling brightly off the superstitious dashboard ornaments of the cars that clog our complex. First a Guānyīn,

then a prayer wheel,

and then a…

…Chairman Mao.

Mao as a part of Chinese folk beliefs isn’t anything new, of course. But I thought it was funny the way it just fell across my path today. For more about Mao’s current status in China’s popular spiritual imagination:

Sunrise taiji, our neighbourhood, Qingdao, China


Sick toddler woke us all up super early last Saturday, so me and 老大 went for a walk around 6:15 to get breakfast and see who was in the 广场

“Sunrise” as in “sun rising over the buildings.” :)

Their times vary throughout the year, but in August our neighbourhood’s tài jí quán (太极拳) and sword dancing (舞剑) groups quit at 7am.

The Chinese morning exercise scene is something to behold:

And so is breakfast:

More taiji from our neighbourhood:

How to: avoid seat belt fines while still unnecessarily risking your life in Chinese traffic

In China we usually couldn’t wear seat belts even if we wanted to. Taxi drivers have them tucked into the seats to get them out of the way, or they’re dirty and hard to pull out from lack of use. But recently I’ve noticed a lot of taxi drivers doing this:

They’ve started wearing the seat belt without clicking it into place. Every time I ask them they tell me how much money and how many points they’ll lose if a traffic camera catches them without a seat belt (something like 6 points and a few hundred 元 — I forget exactly but it’s steep).

Thoughts like: “I drive all day every day, maybe wearing this thing properly would be worth it” or “Since I’m pulling this thing over my lap anyway, I might as well click it into place and benefit” apparently haven’t crossed anyone’s mind. But how could they not?

Sure, it could just be that they don’t like feeling restricted. But I have a theory:* Chinese attitudes toward laws are different because law means something different here. And this seat belt behaviour at least partially reflects that. (*Yes, I’m making most of this up.)

Rule of law, rule by law & human nature

For North Americans, laws are for us, for the individual. It’s rule of law — at least in our heads. Our laws (in theory, ideally) exist to create equality, protect the common people from the powerful and maximize individual self-determination. Of course the reality differs greatly from the ideal, but the ideal exists and it’s on that basis that we (imagine that we) fight for, abide by or disobey laws, when we aren’t just being rebellious and sticking it to authority out of principle. Disobeying a good law or respecting a bad one runs counter to some of our deepest cultural ideals.

But in China, it’s rule by law. Laws are tools arbitrarily used by the rulers to control the masses; the average individual’s enhancement is not really part of the theoretical equation. For thousands of years. Our Western ideals are not part of China’s cultural DNA, even subconsciously. Instead there’s a pragmatic, power-calculating default posture: “What will happen if I don’t obey?” Compliance is just about avoiding fines from a newly-enforced law that wasn’t created with your well-being in mind. So a seat belt law, stiffly enforced to generate better traffic stats? Sure they’ll do what’s necessary to avoid the fines without stopping to imagine the personal benefit of the law itself, even if gaining that benefit only requires a split-second more effort. When laws aren’t for you, the idea that a new regulation might include a personal benefit doesn’t automatically spring to mind.

But let’s be clear: the cultural contrast I’m drawing here is in degree of tendency. When it comes to cross-cultural experience and behaviour differences, our differences are significant, but so is our common humanity.** People are people: take away the penalties and see how much North Americans respect the concept of rule of law, how much our behaviour is guided by principles! But Westerners’ are still significantly influenced by our cultural ideals and experience involving rule of law, ideals and experience that Mainland Chinese in general do not have. Significantly different historical-cultural influences lean on our human nature, resulting in different default behaviour.

At least that’s my theory. I know I’m stretching it. :) But I’m going to start asking drivers directly anyway, just for fun.

Our own Chinese traffic adventures, like taking video while pedaling one-handed through rush hour traffic in Tianjin, can be found here:

**P.S. - IMO, our differences are more profound than people typically realize. But so is what we have in common. IOW, we’re both more different and more similar than people usually imagine. (Internet acronyms FTW!)

Summer heat… with Chinese characteristics

Last week on Wednesday afternoon it was over 30′C. We were sweating in the office — not because we don’t have big air conditioners but because everyone except me is afraid or unwilling to use them enough to actually make the room comfortable. A coworker thoughtfully brought me a cup of water, bless her soul, which she’d poured from a hot thermos. I knew it would be that way, and as my already-sweaty hand felt the heat through the “Little Foreigner”-brand (洋人) cup’s paper sides, I knew it was time for a summer-in-China post.

Turns out (big surprise!) the Chinese tend to manage the heat differently than we do; for foreigners this basically means unnecessary sweating. When I remember to think, I see these big differences over ultimately little things as opportunities to practice understanding and getting along with people who have fundamentally different perspectives from you — something our Western societies tend to do a pitiful job of in general. And we need the practice, because if you have Chinese friends you’ll easily discover big differences over bigger things, too.

1. Cold will give you chronic health problems

Our Chinese tutor is thoroughly convinced that the reason she has painful cramping every month is all due to a particular event in her childhood. When she was 12 or 13, right around the time when she had her first period — I should mention here that if talking about your periods and diarrhea and weight and acne and other body-related things makes you uncomfortable, China will either cure you of that or make you cry, maybe both. When it comes to casually discussing these kinds of body things, Westerners tend to be hypersensitive by comparison. Now back to our language tutor’s menstrual cycle… — she’d been out playing sports on a really hot day. She was all flushed and sweaty and came inside to have a shower. She stood under the shower and turned it on, but the water came out really cold a shocked her. She’s convinced that that untimely instance of drastic temperature change — a hot sweaty body getting doused in extra cold water right at the time her body was changing — is why her monthly cycle is painful to this day.

She comes over for three hours twice a week. We put the air conditioner on “dehumidify” instead of cool. Don’t want coming to our apartment to cause her to fear for her health.

2. Hot sand is good for your bones

Friends in Vancouver, Canada – which neighbours called HONGcouver when I was a kid – asked on Instagram:

I didn’t know, though I guessed it had to do with TCM. So I ask our tutor, and she immediately replies, “Oh yeah, I’ve done that lots of times.” She didn’t know why the lady was wearing a shirt and shorts, but apparently it’s not uncommon for some people go to the beach, get wet, and then cover their skin in hot sand. This helps get the ‘Wind’ and ‘Damp’ our of your bones to prevent “Wind-Damp disease” (风湿症 aka rheumatism) in the future. That was out tutor’s explanation, anyway. (More about this and links to more TCM stuff here: How to scandalize your Chinese neighbours: Evil stepmother edition.)

3. Air conditioners make you sick

Jessica goes to a Chinese book club; it’s great for meeting people and improving her Chinese. This particular group happens to be the more ‘cosmopolitan’ kind of Chinese: younger, educated, disposable income, international travel experience, lots of ‘foreigner friends’, and they love practicing their English so much that many of them only know each other by their ‘English names’ and not their real names. Point here being they’re less typical. Not saying they’re less Chinese, just that they’re a particular breed that’s more foreign-influenced.

So they meet last week, everyone shows up sweaty, and they turn on the air conditioner. Then one more person comes in. She has a cold. She sits directly in front of the air conditioner and then asks if they can turn it off because she’s sick. There are sympathetic comments about ‘air conditioner disease‘ (空调病) making lots of people sick right now, but no one wants to turn it off. This group has figured out that not sweating indoors is nice. They hint at her to sit somewhere else and that they don’t want to turn it off, but this only child is either oblivious or unwilling. So they turn it off, and everybody sweats. After all, she had a point: air conditioners are bad for you.

P.S. – Cross-cultural anecdotes

This is not a disclaimer, but I do want to say something about cross-cultural anecdotes and what they mean and don’t mean.

Anecdotes are powerful; they make impressions. They don’t prove anything, but they can vividly illuminate or mislead depending on how they’re used. I’m not making this stuff up, and I’m not trying to give a particular impression of China or Chinese people. The stories on this blog are not a representative summary of Chinese thought and culture. But they are China as we encounter it. If they illuminate and help outsiders better understand Chinese culture, great. I hope so. Regardless of how accurately this blog portrays the Chinese, what our stories truly represent is one North America family’s personal encounter with and growing understanding of Chinese culture. I hope our experiences, and our understanding of our experiences, accurately reflect Chinese culture, but we’re learning as we go here.

How to scandalize your Chinese neighbours: Evil stepmother edition

Brace yourself; we’re going down the cross-cultural rabbit hole.

China’s Good Samaritan Exception

As you may have heard, Mainland Chinese are (in)famous for not being Good Samaritans; they really don’t want to get entangled in some other family’s problems. Domestic abuse, public medical emergencies, blatant pickpocketing — if it’s not their family, it’s not their problem, and it’s too risky to get involved anyway. But I’ve found an exception to this rule: our kids.

What happened yesterday is a prime example. Jessica took the girls to play outside while I was teaching. It was pushing 34′C and neighbour kids were playing in some water on the sidewalk and invited ours to play. Scandal ensued.

Pop Quiz: Spot the Scandal

Now, Chinese culture pop quiz: Why is this stranger grabbing our kid?

There are clues in the photo. But there’s nothing special about the water (the pipe delivering potable water to the building sprung a leak, so free clean water!) or the ground; it’s just kids playing in water on the sidewalk. But if China had a Child Protective Services and Chinese people cared to use it, they’d consider calling it on account of our horrible parenting on display in this picture.

The parents and grandparents (not all the kids & caregivers are pictured) were visibly disturbed and provoked to intervene more than once when Jessica didn’t stop K, our youngest, from sitting down on the wet sidewalk. They’d try to stand her up, and she’d just give them a look and sit back down (notice the stools in the picture). And of course they hassled Jessica about it. According to our language tutor, if a Chinese person let her kid play this way, neighbours would gossip that she can’t be the biological mother (妈妈), that she must be a stepmother (后妈后娘) because only an uncaring non-relative would let a kid do that. “She just doesn’t look after her!” (不怎么) is what they actually said in front of Jessica.

Oh, I… see.

Of course, Jessica asked questions to get them to explain. She knows a good educational entertainment opportunity when she sees it.

Jessica: “What’s the matter with her sitting down?”

Neighbours (looking like Jessica has three heads): “Dampness! Moistness!” ( / 湿)

Jessica: “So? What will happen?”

Neighbours: “She’ll get sick!” (得病)

Jessica: “You mean she’ll get a cold?”

Neighbours: “No!”

Jessica: “Then what sickness?”

Neighbours: “Her bones will get sore.” Then they quickly discuss what the proper term is, and say: “Rheumatism!” (风湿症)

As with a great many of the stark, mutually-appalling Chinese v. North American parenting differences, this one is rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). By TCM I mean the health theory (学术理论中医学)), not Chinese herbs (中药) like ginseng or specific applications (具体应用) like acupuncture (针灸), guasha (刮痧), or fire cupping (拔罐).

TCM is a fundamental given for the Chinese, part of their basic fabric of reality. And it’s so deeply culturally determined that it’s virtually incomprehensible to Westerners. (Fun game: If you want to get yourself patronized like a silly little child, go explain to a Chinese friend how TCM is make-believe and inferior to Western medical science.) But I won’t let a little thing like that stop me from trying to explain! :)

The problem is, according to the popular TCM understanding of our neighbours and of our sharp and foreigner-accustomed language tutor (I could write several posts on the reasons she gives for her real or imagined ailments), if our daughter sits in the water on a bricked sidewalk, she’ll get Damp (). (Well, shoot dang! No kidding. She might get wet, too. Maybe even soaked!) But they don’t mean damp like what you’re thinking; it’s more like damp+. Being affected by Damp Air (潮气) is a particular TCM health condition; Damp involves but is not entirely reducible to the purely physical/material/scientifically investigate-able and explainable phenomenon we think of. Ditto for related TCM concepts like Cold () and Moist (湿) and Wind (), all of which can get into your body in some nonspecific unobservable way and give you future health problems. Maybe like cooties? With Chinese characteristics?

The fear is that because of the water and the material that bricks are made of, Cold Air (寒气) could get into our daughter’s body or bones (身体/骨骼). She would therefore “get/receive/be subjected to Cold” (受寒). This would cause her to get sick (得病), not in the sense of “catch a cold” (curious we say it that way, eh?), but in the specific sense that Cold entering her bones when she was almost 1-and-a-half-years-old will cause her to have rheumatism when she’s old.

Anyway, this little episode is interesting to me for a couple reasons: the TCM stuff, but also because it’s a situation in which normal Chinese people actually intervene on a regular basis. I wonder if us being foreigners makes them more or less willing to intervene like this.

More about being a bad parent in China:

About getting involved in other people’s business:

And about TCM:

It’s a good thing I don’t own a paintball gun in China

This neighbourhood always seems noisier when my daughters are sleeping. I don’t know if that’s because of the peasants’ motorized three-wheel carts, the Porsche, or that people think the best way to deal with strangers who park in their parking spaces is to repeatedly smack the car alarm until the owner comes out and moves it. (Mainlanders have this fantastic capacity for slowly achieving an objective through loud, repetitious tedium — meaning you’ll be worn out long before the car alarm slapper.) Man I want a paintball gun…