“Don’t make me play with that disgusting foreign kid, Grandma! Those barbarians poo in their pants!”
“Wait, you mean you Chinese kids poo on the ground?”
Next time you’re appalled by Chinese people (or any other culture’s people) because they’re doing something that any halfway intelligent and nominally decent person would know not to do, just remember chances are high they feel they same way about you, and not always without reason.
P.S. — And just for kicks, here’s the poop in the potty song (also here – open then scroll down to For The Kids III). P.P.S. — For the record: I don’t think everything boils down to perspective; it’s not all relative. But a large amount of what we assume about the world — like much of what’s barbaric and what’s civilized, sit-downs or squatties — certainly is.
One sure way to spot a China newbie is that they’re still trying to talk sense into Chinese people regarding health and medicine. They don’t know to avoid conversations like the one I avoided earlier this week with our daughter’s Chinese preschool teacher.
I drop off our daughter at her classroom and say to her teacher, “She’s got a bit of a cold.”
“That’s because she doesn’t wear enough, isn’t it.” She smiles sweetly. But it’s not a question.
Now, we like this teacher; she’s not harsh like the other teachers. She’s patient, and positive. And in this situation she’s not so much criticizing our parenting as demonstrating the responsible concern of a good, dedicated and attentive teacher. Every Chinese person who has ever voiced an opinion on the topic (note: that’s a lot of Chinese people) thinks our kids don’t wear enough to the detriment of their health. It’s borderline scandalous. Our particular Bad Parents Offense these last two weeks is letting our almost-4-year-old wear short sleeves to school. It’s what I hear the nǎinais comment about as we run their gauntlet on our way into the school. It’s just not the time of year for kids to wear short sleeves; weather and the actual temperature has nothing to do with it.
I want to reply, “No, it’s because no one teaches her classmates even nominal hygiene, like covering your mouth when you’re hacking up a gooey lung onto the floor. Besides, it’s 8:30am and already over 20 degrees outside and sunny. And when I come give your kids their English lesson, 90% of them will be sweating in their long sleeves, just like all the other classes. And several of them will still have colds despite their extra layers.”
So what’s it feel like, talking about health with Chinese who have a firmly entrenched TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) perspective? The excerpt below makes a fun illustration.
Jessica and I read stories out loud to each other. We’re in the middle of The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. Kvothe, the protagonist, comes from what’s essentially a pre-industrial Western culture. But he spends several months living among, training under, and learning the basic language and customs of the Adem, a closed and tight-knit, high-context race of philosophical warriors (think: kung-fu + ninjas + inscrutable East Asians). They consider everyone else to be barbarians and augment their conversation with specific hand-gestures. There’s little contact between the two cultures and they are mutually ignorant of the other’s very different customs and beliefs.
In the section below Kvothe and an Adem named Penthe have been sharing the crazy stories each of their respective cultures tells about the other’s. Kvothe is about to discover that the Adem don’t actually know where babies come from – in fact they have no concept or word for father — and he tries to set the record straight. When a Westerner and a traditionally-minded Chinese talk about health, this is what it’s like for both of them; the Chinese or the Westerner could be represented by either character.
Penthe chuckled. “You have the wrong word,” she said, rubbing at my chin. “A beard is what a man makes. A baby is something different, and that you have no part of.”
“We don’t carry the baby,” I said, slightly offended. “But still, we play our part in making it.”
Penthe turned to look at me, smiling as if I had made a joke. Then her smile faded [...] “Are you serious?”
Seeing my perplexed expression, her eyes grew wide with amazement and she sat upright on the bed. “It is true!” she said. “You believe in man-mothers!” She giggled, covering the bottom half of her face with both hands. “I never believed it was true!” She lowered her left hand, revealing an excited grin as she gestured amazed delight.
I felt I should be irritated [...] “What is a man-mother?” I asked.
“Are you not making a joke?” she asked, one hand still half-covering her smile. “Do you truly believe a man puts a baby in a woman?”
“Well…yes,” I said a little awkwardly. “In a manner of speaking. It takes a man and a woman to make a baby. A mother and a father.”
“You have a word for it!” she said, delighted. “They told me this too. With the stories of dirt soup. But I never thought it a real story!”
I sat up myself at this point, growing concerned. “You do know how babies are made, don’t you?” I asked, gesturing serious earnestness. [...]
She looked at me for a moment in stunned silence, then dissolved helplessly into laughter, trying to speak several times only to have it overwhelm her again when she looked up at the expression on my face.
Penthe put her hands on her belly, prodding it as if puzzled. “Where is my baby?” She looked down at her flat belly. “Perhaps I have been sexing wrong these years. I should have a hundred babies if what you say is true. Five hundred babies!”
“It does not happen every time there is sex,” I said. “There are only certain times when a woman is ripe for a baby.”
“And have you done this? she asked, looking at me with mock seriousness while a smile tugged at her mouth. “Have you made a baby with a woman?”
“I have been careful not to do such a thing,” I said. “There is an herb called silphium. I chew it every day, and it keeps me from putting a baby in a woman.”
Penthe shook her head. “This is more of your barbarian sex rituals,” she said. “Does bringing a man to the flowers also make a baby where you come from?”
I decided to take a different tack. “If men do not help with making babies, how do you explain that babies look like their fathers?”
“Babies look like angry old men,” Penthe said. “All bald and with…” She hesitated, touching her cheek. “…with face lines. Perhaps the old men are the only ones making babies then?” She smirked.
“What about kittens?” I asked. “You have seen a litter of kittens. When a white cat and a black cat have sex, you get kittens both white and black. And kittens of both colors.”
“Always?” she asked.
“Not always,” I admitted. “But most times.” [...]
Penthe gave me a serious look. “You are committing false thinking. You could as easily say two stones make a baby by banging against each other until a piece breaks off. Therefore two people make baby peoples in the same way.”
I fumed, but she was right. I was committing a fallacy of analogy. It was faulty logic.
Our conversation continued along this vein for some time [...] Eventually Penthe waved a hand to stop me, gesturing exasperation. “Do you hear your own excuses? Sex makes babies, but not always. The sex must be at the right time, but not always. There are plants that make it more likely, or less likely.” She shook her head. “You must realize what you say is thin as a net. You keep sewing new threads, hoping it will hold water. But hoping does not make it true.”
Seeing me frown, she took my hand and gestured comfort into it [...] “I can see you think this truly. I can understand why barbarian men would want to believe it. It must be comforting to think you are important in this way. But it is simply not.” Penthe looked at me with something close to pity. [...] “Sometimes a woman ripens. It is a natural thing, and men have no part in it. That is why more women ripen in the fall, like fruit.”
Pro Tip: Here’s a cheap cop-out that works, if you need to escape a conversation like the one above: “foreigners’ bodies are different.” This works. I’m not necessarily saying you should use it — I don’t like it because it’s not being straight with people; avoiding expressing your opinion and giving misleading impressions about your opinion are different things — but it does work. And it’s an explanation that goes back ages. In My Country My People, Lin Yutang relates how some Chinese doctors, upon discovering a Western medical text showing the heart on the left, concluded smugly that, ‘Aha! Barbarians’ bodies are fundamentally different from Chinese, whose hearts are on the right. And this is why barbarians have a different religion.’ (Those Chinese doctors had never bothered to dissect a cadaver.) I use modified forms of this excuse: “Foreigners aren’t afraid of ‘cold’” or “Foreigners can’t ‘get wind’”. or “We’re used to it. It’s not a problem for us.”
P.S. - The Kingkiller Chronicle is entertaining, but has (a lot) more (superfluous) sex and violence than we normally read. So don’t go download it and then come complaining to me!
More about TCM & healthiness with Chinese characteristics:
When we were beginner language students I translated a dog restaurant menu just for fun. Now this week in Beijing they’re telling people to stop eating dogs. A friend posted this photo yesterday:
“Please refuse to eat dog meat! There’s all different kinds of food, but ‘friends’ are extremely precious.”
– The Beijing Loving Animals Foundation 请拒吃狗肉！食物多种多样，而“朋友”弥足珍贵
If there’s a campaign to stop eating dogs, our district in Qingdao has definitely not received the memo. Here’s some pictures I just happen to have on hand, taken right in our neighbourhood and at the nearest restaurants:
“Five Spice Dog Meat” 五香狗肉 Spring Festival gift box.
This hotpot restaurant’s menu includes fish head meat 鱼头肉, beer duck 啤酒鸭, dog 狗肉, and eel 鳝鱼.
At a competing restaurant dog meat tops the hotpot menu 狗肉火锅.
Pro Tip! “Dog food” — is that food for your dog (狗粮), or your dog for food (狗肉)? You’ll probably want to be careful you don’t confuse this:
(pet food store)
(dog meat gift bag from Chinese teacher)
(dog meat restaurant)
Pro Tip #2! Dog meat is a wintertime food. In the spring and summer it won’t be available at many restaurants that usually serve it. Because Chinese medicine. So you’ll probably have to wait a while before you get to try any.
[Update Apr 19]
Dog is more popular around here than I realized. Normally I eat with a group on Friday nights, but everyone had to work overtime tonight. So I was on my own for dinner, and took my time walking around just to see what was available. In five minutes I found five places that serve dog. I’m sure there would have been more but friends called and said they could make it after all so I stopped looking and went to meet them. See if you can find “狗” in each of these pictures:
When we first arrived in China it was early spring, and we quickly discovered it was standard for people to wear three or more pairs of pants. Indoors. I assumed it was because they had to, because they couldn’t afford decent heating or the facilities and infrastructure were just too old. Haha, silly foreigner… that’s “using Western thinking to understand China”! This is China — there’s more to it than that.
The Passive-Aggressive Window Game
I want to switch out this picture for one showing my coworkers in the office, wearing their winter clothes, scarves, everything, next to a heater that’s not on and a window that’s not closed, complaining that it’s cold, while a guy walks by outside with a cloth mask over his mouth and nose because he’s protecting against the cold wind.
To my Western sensibilities, the scene is mildly insane. It’s cold and windy, people! Shut the windows and turn on the heaters that are in every single room, and we won’t have to wear our outside clothes inside! If you’re afraid of cold wind outside, why are you inviting it inside? Why did you deliberately turn our workspace into a near-freezing wind tunnel?
I’m all for creative responses to culture stress, so I’m conducting an informal and surreptitious sociological experiment. On my Chinese coworkers.
Now that winter is officially over but it’s still cold, during most of March at work we play the passive-aggressive window game. They open the windows wide — of course you should open the windows wide on cold and windy days. Parents will complain if they don’t. So we’re all freezing. But when no one’s looking, I walk by and, with numbed fingers, shut the windows. And after a couple classes, someone’s opened them again. So I wait until no one’s looking and shut them again. Just to see what will eventually happen. Will they catch on? Will I get caught in the act? What will they say? It’s exciting, no? :)
I can see not turning the heat on as a practical thing: everyone has to wear several layers just to survive the commute to work and changing would be inconvenient, homes might not be well-heated, heating costs money for the school, and the wiring can’t handle even half the heaters at one time. But none of that explains opening the windows and deliberately creating a draft in every classroom and office.
And do not eat an apple outside on a windy day, unless you want to be guānxīn-ed about your health: “You’ll get ‘wind’ in your ‘stomach’!” Unless you’re provoking your local friends on purpose, like one foreign coworker I had who once faced the wind and opened her mouth wide to deliberately swallow as much wind as she could just to get a reaction from our adult students. But don’t expect a comfortable temperature indoors, even when it’s possible and affordable. Like fearing cold water, they also fear still air. Air must move, or else when we get old, we’ll die, or something. It doesn’t matter if it’s single-digit Celsius outside and windy; they will deliberately turn your school hallways and classrooms into wind tunnels. And then they’ll wear their winter coats and scarves inside and talk about how cold it is. It’s healthier.
If that seems like a deliberately disorganized jumble of anecdotes, that’s because it is. That’s how you first encounter traditional Chinese healthiness when you move over here. You don’t get a systematic introduction to traditional Chinese medicine; you get random comments at meals (“No thanks, my fire’s up”), coworkers who keep turning off the air conditioning in summer (空调病！), and unsolicited advice about not wearing shorts in the spring (you’ll get arthritis when you’re old). Sorting that all out and making sense of it is your job.
Healthiness with Chinese characteristics
People usually don’t do things for no reason. Maybe you don’t agree with their reasons or don’t understand their reasons, or maybe their reasons are objectively bad. But most of the time their reasons make sense, at least according to their own terms. The deliberate early spring wind tunnel even makes some degree of sense to foreigners: it’s flu season, especially in a school, so they want to keep the air indoors fresh by ventilating 通风换气。Anyone who’s crossed the ocean in an airplane shared with sneezing coughing snuffling people should be able to appreciate this.
But health is often one of several huge areas of cultural disconnect between China and its resident laowais, of total misunderstanding and mutual scandalization. How wide is the disconnect? One coworker, after observing our daughter and how we handled her, theorized in all seriousness that the reason foreigners don’t care about their kids’ health as much as Chinese parents is because foreigners can have as many kids as they want. If we mess one or two up, no biggie — we can always have more! (To be fair, the other coworker in the conversation disagreed. Plus, it’s not uncommon for foreigners to basically make the same kind of accusation against Chinese. Remember: we’re mutually scandalizing.)
“Chinese medicine” 中医 as “the general Chinese understanding and approach to health” (rather than meaning “Chinese herbs” 中药 like ginseng or “techniques” like fire-cupping) is near impossible for Westerners to understand. The concepts are extremely difficult to express within our languages and worldview because they are so thoroughly tied to Chinese worldview, philosophy and thought categories. The Web That Has No Weaver, a book that attempts to explain Chinese medicine while appreciating the difficulty, begins with Chinese philosophy, not biology. If you read a description of Chinese medicine that you understand right away, then either you’re Chinese or what you’re reading is not a description of Chinese medicine; the meaning was lost in translation.
P.S. – “ventilating the air” to help combat flu season is the reason our youngest and most cosmopolitan employee gave me. But there’s another reason that’s probably at least as relevant: avoiding drastic changes in temperature. It’s not considered healthy to move from cold to hot or vice versa, to put cold things in your body when you’re warm, etc. People’s body temperature stays more consistent when they bundle up inside rather than making inside warm. This thinking is behind eating ice cream outside in the winter, and behind the story a friend told us yesterday explaining why she has bad cramping every month: when she was around 13 she got hot and sweaty from sports one day and went to take a shower. But the water came out really cold, suddenly dousing and chilling her over-heated body. She was on one of her first periods at the time. And that’s why she now has bad cramping every month.
Three photos from this Easter weekend in Qingdao that just happen to represent three different kinds of Chinese engagement with Christianity. Easter in Chinese is “Resurrection Festival” 复活节。
1. Three-Self Good Friday
At the local Three-Self Patriotic Church‘s Good Friday service. Three-Self churches can seem stodgy in many ways, as if the Party-mandated international isolation and societal marginalization has frozen in time an imported 1930′s Western fundamentalist style of Christianity by strangling its development. But things are changing, as anyone who spends time at their local Three-Self can tell you. Even if the outward forms — music, facilities, teaching, etc. — seem under-resourced at times, this little church is packed every Friday night. This last Friday, half the attendees and the preacher were in tears by the end.
I’m using this picture to represent China’s traditional, legal, urban Christianity.
2. Good Luck Crucifix
A crucifix hanging from the rear-view mirror of our taxi on Easter Sunday morning, next to a typical luck charm (drivers usually hang folk Buddhist, Daoist, even Maoist luck charms). This driver had no idea at all what the crucifix represented; he just vaguely associated it with something positive, saying he doesn’t care about the meanings of any of that stuff but just hangs whatever gives him a nice feeling. (How a miniature scale model of someone being tortured to death could give anyone good vibes — especially if they aren’t aware of the greater hopeful story from which that image comes and what it’s meant to represent — is beyond me.) Have to admit, I was not expecting to see that hanging in the taxi on Easter morning.
I’m using this picture to represent the millions upon millions of Chinese who have zero background knowledge of Christianity, but who cannot avoid encountering it (at least in small, token ways) in today’s China.
3. Jesus Car
A Christian car that shows up in our neighbourhood every couple weeks, including today (Easter Sunday afternoon). What they’re trying to communicate by using English I don’t know (status, education, cosmopolitanism?). They’ve got a cross glued to the dash, where traditional charms like Buddhist prayer wheels often go. But if you look closer you’ll see a key detail that marks them as a new breed of Chinese Christian: their Chinese Bible verse is not written in the traditional, beloved, archaic-sounding KJV-esque translation that 99.99% of China’s churches are unwilling to part with (something that annoys this language student to no end, even though I sympathize). It’s written in the latest translation (Chinese Standard Bible / 中文标准译本), meaning they’re probably part of a next generation of Chinese Christians who are willing to break with cherished traditions.
Even though most of them don’t advertize on the side of their cars, I’m using this picture to represent the newer breed of Chinese Christian, who are typically urban, wealthy, educated and trendy, and whose newly-emerging churches represent an additional third branch of Chinese Christianity along side the Three-Self and traditional unregistered church legacies.
My former Chinese company’s annual year-end banquet brought to mind two things: cheesy church services, and a story from my junior high history textbook about a speech by Lenin, after which the applause went on for several minutes because everyone was afraid to be the first one to stop clapping.
(I wrote this after my first semester working at a privately-owned, local English training centre in Tianjin, but waited to post it until now. It captures a North American’s reaction to his first vivid encounter with the Chinese-style boss-employee relationship.)
I know China is a “kiss up, kick down” society where might makes right, but it was surreal to see it in action at my former place of employment’s year end banquet. They worshiped the boss of the company — in song – clapping and singing along, raising their hands, swaying to the music like I was having a nightmare involving a horribly mutated Evangelical worship service.
The Boss — Germany v. China:
It was bizarre. The whole evening was this giant ritual revolving around people kissing up to the boss by affirming his (inflated) position, with the subplot of each table having to get up and go toast every other table with China’s infamous hard alcohol that my previous Chinese boss admitted to hating — actually, every Chinese I’ve ever asked admits to hating it. But it’s professional in China for all staff to drink copious amounts of hard liquor — they have to. Who’s idea was this? It’s like junior high peer pressure didn’t get left in junior high and became culturally institutionalized. Everyone appeared to have a great time. But then I don’t know why they needed to take attendance or save the door prizes for the very end of the night.
They put us foreigner English teachers all at one table in the front row beside the big boss’ table. Our local counterparts, the Chinese English teachers, were placed at the far back of the large banquet hall — that’s where we foreigners would rank if we were Asian. But as the right kind of visible minorities, we were window dressing for the photos and videos of the event. There was a lot of karaoke to applaud from various departments (each department had to do some kind of performance), but it seemed suspiciously obligatory and alcohol-dependent. We couldn’t even think about leaving until after the big boss sang his big number and multiple encores for the crowd of sycophantic employees who’d rushed to the front of the room when he began singing like it was a pop concert. The video guy made a special point to come over and capture the foreigerns clapping and smiling along to the boss’ songs.
This was a privately owned local company. One of my Chinese coworkers (also my language tutor) says the butt-kissing is way worse at SOEs. As a North American, accustomed to slightly more subtle methods of butt-kissing that are covered by a token fig-leaf veneer, seeing the more ‘honest’ Chinese approach in action was striking and memorable, but painful to watch.
Read Ian Johnson’s Wild Grass: Three Portraits of Change in Modern China (2004). Plenty of important insights to be gained from this book, particularly since “evil cults” have been in the news again and Johnson does a great job illustrating why and how certain groups can be so brutally persecuted. A related insight that I find interesting is the challenge of developing “civic consciousness” among ordinary Chinese.
“A pile of loose sand” and the lack of Chinese civic consciousness
In the early 20th century, Dr. Sun Yat-sen famously referred to the Chinese as “a pile of loose sand” and apparently saw nationalism as the solution:
For the most part the four hundred million Chinese can be spoken of as completely Han Chinese with common customs and habits. We are completely of one race. But in the world today, what position do we occupy? Compared to the other peoples of the world we have the greatest population and our civilization is four thousand years old; we should therefore be advancing in rank with the nations of Europe and America. But the Chinese people have only family and clan solidarity; they do not have a hundred million people gathering together in China, in reality they are just a pile of loose sand.
That was almost a century ago. Today, China suffers from nationalism overload, yet the same lack of civic consciousness still plagues domestic China. Consider these comments from award-winning journalist Ian Johnson describing late-90′s China:
A friend of mine liked to argue . . . [that] the crackdown showed that Chinese actually didn’t care much about each other or the discrepancy in what they saw and what the [authorities] did. There was no solidarity with the persecuted, unless they were family members or personal friends. It was like the traffic accidents that one sees in big Chinese cities — crowds gather only to stare; almost no one stops to help. No wonder [the authorities] could hold on to power so easily, he said. It doesn’t have to divide and conquer its enemies; they are divided of their own accord. I had to agree with him, because I rarely encountered a person who got really angry about the way [the authorities] treated [the persecuted] adherents. While some far-thinking people saw the campaign as unjustified and cruel, most simply shrugged and wondered why people bothered to stand up for something they believed in. Concerned with their daily struggles, they couldn’t understand why [the persecuted] believers insisted on exercising publicly. “Why not just exercise in the living room?” was the most common response I got when I asked about the repression… [pp. 288-289].
For more about the specific persecuted group referred to above and a similar group, see these links: