“Weird Al” Yankovic’s Mandatory Fun Chinese propaganda posters!

“Weird Al” Yankovic is promoting his latest album Mandatory Fun with two Chinese propaganda poster spoofs. One poster has Chinese. To find out what it says, mouseover the Chinese characters here or scroll down:

weirdalmandatoryfunchinesepropaganda Weird Al Yankovics Mandatory Fun Chinese propaganda posters!
“I’m not wearing underwear”
wǒ méiyǒu chuān nèikù

And here’s the other one:

weirdalmandatoryfunchinesepropaganda2 Weird Al Yankovics Mandatory Fun Chinese propaganda posters!

Click the images for the original source.

Your sample Chinese New Year 2014 horsey text message [Updates!]

CNYhorseundies Your sample Chinese New Year 2014 horsey text message [Updates!]Chinese will send billions (literally!) of New Year’s greeting text messages today and tomorrow. And since the Year of the Horse begins tonight at midnight, this year there are lots of horsey word-plays (in addition to a proliferation of auspicious horse panties), just like the rabbit word-plays in 2011.

Here’s a real life example that we receivedearlier today, because these kinds of things are great for language learners, and you gotta have something with which to spam your address book.

“At once / right away / immediately” in Chinese is literally, “on a horse” (as in, you know, faster than walking). If you’re a first-year language student and your teacher sends you a text asking if you’ve arrived yet, you can reply in English “on a horse!” and they’ll think you’re really clever (if they’re clever enough to figure it out). Or roll their eyes.

Anyway, in this text “” does double-duty meaning “immediately” and “on the (year of the) horse.” So without further ado, mouseover the text for pronunciation and translation:

,[your name(s) here]家人祝福

[Update 1] So lazy of me not to write out the English. Here it is:

The Horse Year has arrived. [so-and-so’s]family sends blessings!
Wishing you and your family right away have money, right away have a house, right away have a car.*
Right away have good fortune, right away have good luck, right away have a vacation!
In short, good luck and everything as it should be in the horse year, immediate success! From the start prospering to the year’s end.

[*Remember: “right away” is a word-play on “on the horse”.]

[Update 2] That Despicable Me minions Year of the Horse song video that’s been floating around? You can watch it and read a translation and explanation right here: On the Horse

More Chinese New Year text message fun:

More Chinese New Year 2014 fun:

[Photo Gallery:] It’s Fú Time! Get ready for Chinese New Year 2014!

fu5 [Photo Gallery:] Its Fú Time! Get ready for Chinese New Year 2014!

Qingdao’s canal bed Licun Daji traditional market is epic on a normal day (see photos here). But on the last market day before Chinese New Year, it’s “here a , there a , everywhere a -” — like a ginormous red, yellow and black ant colony that some kid has just poked with a stick, all charged up and buzzing with Chinese New Year colour, food and traditions.

fu1 [Photo Gallery:] Its Fú Time! Get ready for Chinese New Year 2014!
Have a fu.

On locals’ advice, a coworker and I squeezed around back and forth through it during xiūxi time (aka after lunch siesta), when the crowds weren’t as lethal as in the morning. We weren’t aiming to document the whole thing, just look around and chat and take pictures of whatever caught our eye, and ended up with a lots of red and religious stuff (in which Chairman Mao makes an expected strong appearance), along with the usual things that make foreigners stop and take pictures.

gods1 [Photo Gallery:] Its Fú Time! Get ready for Chinese New Year 2014!
财神,the money god, for sale.

(Aside from one pile of pig heads, there aren’t any other photos of piles of animal parts, though it was interesting to see shoppers inspect piles of cold, shiny intestines the same way you would check over tomatoes — i.e. with your bare hands.)

apples [Photo Gallery:] Its Fú Time! Get ready for Chinese New Year 2014!
Apples grown with stickers to make the sun shine “riches” , “respect” , and “advance” into the peels.

Anyway, here you go!

More photos from this market: Licunji – Qingdao’s most epic market

Chinese New Year photo galleries:

Chinese New Year songs to learn:

Lucky Panties & Fu:

[Photo Gallery:] Licunji – Qingdao’s most epic market

We’re celebrating one whole year in Qingdao! So here’s a photo gallery from the most epic market I’ve ever seen anywhere (scroll down past the blahblahblah and click a thumbnail to begin). It just happens to be a 20-minute walk from our place.

post01viewmarketscape20131001 LicunDaji 003 [Photo Gallery:] Licunji   Qingdaos most epic market
The middle third of Lǐcūnjí.

李村集 has occupied a usually (but not always) dry canal bed for over 100 years, stretching between four bridges. You’d need a few hours to see everything. It’s a site to behold any day of the week, but “big market” days (大集) — lunar calendar days ending in 2 and 7 — bring breathtaking scale and variety (and near-apocalyptic traffic jams). For anyone who wants to learn about China, the amount of culture on display here — relating to food, medicine, religion, leisure, etc. — is just incredible. The streets immediately parallel to the canal are also packed. But two streets away you’ll find spanking new upscale malls, trendy shopping streets (步行街), and a forest of in-progress highrises. Lǐcūnjí is an old-school island in a sea of rapid development, and who knows how long they’ll let it stay.

post02people20130930 LindysLicunDaji 025 [Photo Gallery:] Licunji   Qingdaos most epic market
On one of the two middle bridges that stretch across Lǐcūnjí.

There are many ‘Chinas’Lǐcūnjí is one that foreigners encounter less often, and that perhaps represents (economically at least) a larger slice of China’s population than the university-educated urbanites foreigners are most likely to interact with. I couldn’t find anything online about it in English. So it’s almost like I get to play Marco Polo with this. If you’re a lǎowài and you visit, you’ll be the only one for miles. And chances are good you’ll see some things you’ve never seen before. Lǐcūnjí isn’t for tourists, domestic or foreign. It’s China unedited.

post03medicinepenisclaw20130930 LindysLicunDaji 052 [Photo Gallery:] Licunji   Qingdaos most epic market
Tiger paw, horns and assorted dried penises (tiger, deer & seal).

Photos are all by me or Lindy (a good friend from our Tianjin days), taken on her real camera and my point-and-shoot and iPhone. We spent most of a morning there, and I’ve accumulated some pictures over the months because I pass through there almost every week. This doesn’t come close to documenting or even summarizing the entire place. Still, it’s an eyeful (though not for the easily queasy!). Photos are loosely grouped by theme: marketscape (7), gods (10), pets (4), people (14), places (5), medicine (11), lunch (20), trinkets (3), meat (10), produce (9), and more marketscape (14).

When living in Tianjin we stumbled upon a different but similar sort of place:

lunch04bridgebbqIMG 2367crop [Photo Gallery:] Licunji   Qingdaos most epic market
At Lǐcūnjí’s under-the-bridge BBQ pits, they’ll prepare whatever meat & veggies you bring from the market.

post04viewbathhouse20131001 LicunDaji 043 [Photo Gallery:] Licunji   Qingdaos most epic market
The “Bridgehead Bathhouse”

post05viewmarketscape20130930 LindysLicunDaji 005 [Photo Gallery:] Licunji   Qingdaos most epic market
The south-west third of Lǐcūnjí.

Cross-cultural food: the feeling’s mutual

applepiesmall Cross cultural food: the feelings mutualWe’re at a church lunch in Taipei. It’s Thanksgiving in America so Jessica’s baked an apple pie. They aren’t celebrating Thanksgiving but we figure an apple pie would be fun to share. Mrs. Xie’s around 50 years old and the first to take a bite. She chews twice, then suddenly yells, “Ròu guì!” as she reflexively spits out her mouthful of our quintessentially American potluck contribution into her hand.

I remember it clearly; she sort of jumps back a bit when she yells and catches the mouthful of pie. Heads turn. Everyone laughs, including us once we understand what’s just happened. Mrs. Xie was genuinely surprised and had reacted on reflex. We had no clue and never would have guessed that Chinese use cinnamon in traditional medicine but not sweets. And Mrs. Xie apparently never expected to find one of TCM‘s 50 fundamental herbs in a foreign dessert on the church potluck table. “We eat this in lots of stuff in North America, it’s really common…” You can imagine the impression this is making. So much for iconic American cuisine!

It’s Mutual

That wasn’t the first or the last time we’ve accidentally grossed-out Chinese acquaintances with our Western food. There’re more stories below, but first here’s an idea. Between any two cultures is a shared category called FOOD where individuals’ feelings range range from Yum! to Ok to No thanks to Yuck!. The preferences within one culture tend toward relative similarity. But the more different two cultures are, the greater the chance that each culture will also have stuff in their FOOD category that the other culture doesn’t — people from the other side categorize it as NOT FOOD and so have never considered eating it. Sometimes presenting NOT FOOD as FOOD triggers such visceral disgust that the very thought of eating it makes them physically uncomfortable. It’s not just NOT FOOD, it’s literally sickening.

This especially applies to China and Euro-America because of the extremes. Not only is there plenty of common food in each culture that people from the other culture typically find unappetizing, there’s quite a bit that’s entirely outside the other’s FOOD category. I think that’s funny. And interesting. It illustrates how strong and arbitrary our culturally-conditioned, visceral reactions and preferences can be.

It’s Arbitrary

dogfood2small Cross cultural food: the feelings mutualThink about it: Barbaric accurately expresses what the average Anglo-American feels inside when they think about Chinese eating dogs, even if they won’t say it out loud. But why should dog meat be any more disgusting than pig meat? Can you think of any even partially-objective reason? Are shrimp any cleaner than water roaches? Think about eating a crab: actually cracking open a shell, pulling legs off… Why are we unwilling to eat insects but pay big bucks to eat crustaceans — the relatively huge, exoskeletonned garbage-suckers of the ocean? We call one disgusting and the other delicacy.

But it doesn’t have to be “gross” to simply not be considered food. What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you see this:

starfish20130430 502embed Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

Most North Americans, I’d wager, at first glance would think “souvenirs” (or “beach”, “tide pool”, etc.). We’ve seen starfish just like those in buckets just like that at seaside souvenir shops in Canada and the U.S. But (and you knew this was coming) it’s actually a seafood restaurant in Qingdao, waiting for you to order so they can do this:

starfish20130531 397embed Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

Turns out that Chinese and Anglo-Americans tend to populate their respective FOOD / NOT FOOD categories with slightly (ha!) different things. And that’s where the fun comes in.

Fringe vs. Mainstream Food

One last thing before the examples: It’s easy to go to another country, search out the most exotic food you can find, something that most locals won’t even touch, and then go, “Holy cow! Look what they eat!” But it’s just not that interesting; it doesn’t well represent that culture or human diversity because it’s comparing one culture’s novelty food with another culture’s mainstream. For example, we could use prairie oysters and say,

Canadians eat bull testicles!
prairieoysters Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

Technically that’s true, I guess, though it’s a safe bet that 99% of the Canadians I know think that’s sick and wrong. For China I’d call 3-squeak mice, urine eggs, and Taipei’s “snake alleynovelty food, along with exotic traditional Chinese medicine ingredients like tiger penis. So for our purposes here that stuff doesn’t count.

The novelty and shock value of fringe food wears off quickly. What’s more interesting, I think, is stuff that’s normal to most locals but not even within the category of “food” to most outsiders. So here’s some examples (finally!) from our own experiences that go both ways between China and North America.


1. Pig feet 猪蹄 vs. perogies & sour cream 酸奶油

We lived with a Taiwanese family for two weeks while volunteering at a Hurricane Katrina shelter in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Their favourite dish was pig feet 猪蹄, so that’s what we had our first night. And for lunch the next day. And several more times while we were there. Microwaved pig feet at work. I remember sucking the gelatinous flesh off bones and spitting out what I guess were the knuckles. It wasn’t anywhere near appetizing for us, though that wasn’t a problem because our education had drilled into us that when you’re someone’s guest, you eat it — period (our rural East Africa internships offered much greater mealtime challenges than some sticky pig feet). Plus, we got revenge.

Perogiesmall Cross cultural food: the feelings mutualOne night while we were with them we planned to share our own cultural food. My heritage is Ukrainian; every Christmas mom makes perogies and cabbage rolls. Since perogies (we figured) were more or less Western 饺子 they ought to go down well with our Taiwanese hosts. Now I don’t know about in Ukraine, but Canadians cover their perogies in tons of sour cream (or maybe that’s just my family). Anyway, I remember the mom as we opened the sour cream container in the middle of the table and plopped a huge shiny white blob on top of our perogies — her face said something like: “Wow. They can’t be serious…” It’s the exact same face I made countless times during our first two years in Taipei and Tianjin. They took a couple token licks before eating their perogies plain. I was like, hey, more sour cream for me!

2. Pig blood cake 猪血糕

Probably the best example from our own lives of how taste in food is in your head more than your tongue comes from our first week in Taipei. We’d arrived right in time for the start of Chinese New Year. That meant almost everything was closed. Every night for dinner we would just wander outside and eat whatever we could find, which usually came from random lonely street vendors. Some nights we had to search for several blocks.

On one such night we found a push cart vendor selling these rectangular things on sticks, which he coated in… crushed peanuts? With some cilantro? We had no clue what it was and not enough language to ask, but it was our only option so we ate some for dinner. And honestly, it tasted alright. A day or two later we found out what it was when we asked our English-speaking employers during a work dinner: “pig blood cake猪血糕. Then I felt sick to my stomach. Holy cow. Part of me didn’t believe them; I’d never imagined pig blood cake was in the realm of possible dinner options.

Turns out that blood, in various forms, is not uncommon in Chinese food.

3. Our Qingdao

scorpionIMG 4657small Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

Literally down the street and around the corner from our place in Qingdao there’s a guy with buckets of live scorpions 蝎子, sorted by size, and a little pot to fry them in. He sits directly across from the “pig head meat猪头肉 seller (which means pig parts, not just head pieces). Within a 20 minute walk from our place I can get: dog meat 狗肉 (at over a dozen places), duck blood soup 鸭血汤, hair eggs 毛蛋, silk worm chrysalis 蚕蛹, starfish 海星, more scorpions, sheep heads 羊头, 3-penis liquor 三鞭酒, sea cucumber 海参, bullfrogs 牛蛙… Click the words for a picture! :)

This isn’t a list of all the most-gross-to-the-average-Anglo-American Chinese food that I’ve ever seen in China. It’s a representative sampling of a long list of edibles outside the typical Anglo-American’s “food” category that I routinely stumble upon within a half-hour walking radius of our apartment in Qingdao. None of it is considered terribly exotic and it’s not connected to tourism. It’s at regular, daily markets and average restaurants. Sure, it’d be easy to find some Chinese who don’t like to eat this stuff, but most of the locals around here don’t think anything of it.

maodan20130519 092small Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

And if we remove the “routinely” clause: donkey heads 驴头, donkey penis 驴鞭, cow penis soup 牛鞭汤, dog penis 狗鞭 (hot pot) — yes, I’m going with a theme here — and snake penis 蛇鞭 (liquor tonic 补酒 ingredient) represent a long list of things I come across around here but don’t see every week.

scorpionIMG 4658small Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

4. Cheese 奶酪

Chinese people not liking cheese 奶酪 is a cliché food anecdote, especially (but not only) for Chinese 50 years and older, but we still see it. It makes sense: think of all the Chinese food you like to eat, and then imagine melting cheese on it. Ew. When our daughter’s all-Chinese preschool has “pizza” for “Western food day”, it’s cheese-less. I forget which memoir it was, but one Chinese author I’ve read wrote of moving to New Zealand and her mom coming to visit. They had dinner at some local Kiwi’s where a fancy cheese plate was served. Her very polite mom dutifully at some… and barfed afterward.

5. Mexican food 墨西哥

Mexican food 墨西哥 is, according to our fully-bilingual, internationally-traveling former boss in Taipei, the strangest-tasting-to-him of all the foreign food he’s tried, on account of the spices. And as every American expat in Mainland China knows, the lack of Mexican food is at emergency levels. We’ve never lived in Beijing but we know the one place to get decent Tex-Mex — it’s practically a religious pilgrimage every time we have to visit the Capitol.

6. Stinky Tofu 臭豆腐

choudofukeelungschodofusmall Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

People can have pretty strong feelings about their favourite food, of course, especially if it’s connected to their heritage. Our Taipei friends love stinky tofu 臭豆腐 and they joked about it being their national food. One of them told us how angry it made her when she saw a foreigner on a TV show say, “It tastes like sh–!” Their feelings are understandable but so are that foreigner’s, even if he was rude about it. The first time we encountered stinky tofu, we were far enough down the street from the vendor that we didn’t even know he was there. My throat was suddenly seized by this pungent cloud; I literally thought something must be dead nearby, some juicy and exceptionally spicy roadkill in the hot, humid Taiwan sun. A resident foreigner had told us about stinky tofu, but what I smelled was so strong I’d assumed it was something else. I couldn’t believe it when we eventually walked past the push cart. (Not all varieties of stinky tofu are this powerful.)

6. Silkworm chrysalis蚕蛹

canyong20130531 396small Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

I used to think silk worm chrysalis 蚕蛹 were just for tourists and adventure eaters until I started seeing them in local restaurants and markets. Our friend Rob in Tianjin had dinner with a classmates’ family, and they served a big plate of them. He said their young daughter chowed down on them like nobody’s business. We’ve had them at local sidewalk BBQs (though I opted out of the sheep penis). The picture above is from a market I pass through twice a week.

7. Duck tongues 鸭舌

 Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

During our first month in Taipei our new friends took us to the Shilin nightmarket. We made a deal: we’d eat everything they picked out so long as they didn’t tell us what it was first. Yay duck tongues 鸭舌! Maybe that counts as adventure eating, but they ate them just like any occasional snack.

8. Breakfast 早餐

Whether you’re Chinese or Anglo-American, breakfast is one of the hardest adjustments to make when crossing these two cultures. Maybe because people are cranky in the morning, I don’t know. In our home in China we eat with chopsticks at least one meal a day and often two (not intentionally, that’s just how it happens). But breakfast is always Western; no trace of China on table. We even have a cinnamon shaker for oatmeal and coffee. And we have Chinese friends who feel the same in reverse.

youtiaoIMG 6057small Cross cultural food: the feelings mutualOne Chinese friend from Tianjin married a Michigan girl and they recently moved to the States. In the past when he was just visiting, he made his own breakfasts (instant noodles) every morning. This time, realizing it was a move and not just a visit, he was psychologically preparing himself before they left, trying to work up the right attitude toward adjusting to, rather than avoiding, American-style breakfast. He knew what he was getting into and needed to psych himself up.

With Chinese breakfast there’s no mercifully gentle easing into the warm embrace of a consoling cup of coffee that says, “There there, I know getting out of bed is hard…” Our first Chinese breakfast surprise was when staying a weekend with friends in Beijing. We had hot, spicy noodles and pickled shredded vegetables. I promise it sounds a lot worse when you’ve just woken up. But a bowl of cereal is at least as unappetizing to the average Mainlander. If you’ve ever stayed at a Chinese hotel, you’ve maybe been surprised at how there can be so little you want to eat in such a big breakfast spread.

Adventure eating is for amateurs

I’ve done my share of made-for-clueless-tourists adventure eating — there’s a certain time in every almost-man’s life when you want to challenge yourself just for fun, to see what you can handle. But more interesting to me is the food that locals think is normal, or a special treat, that I wouldn’t even think of as food if they hadn’t identified it as such.

If there’s a point to this, I guess it’s that we can and should be honest about cultural differences, not just because it builds healthy communication and mutual understanding, but it’s also interesting and funny in its own right. Of course we should be sensitive about how we communicate — different levels of bluntness are appropriate to different contexts. At dinner in someone’s home we smile and nod and eat whatever we’re served (octopus heads, recently). But with friends out in the street, or on the blog? That’s different. Gagging on one another’s food can be fun and enlightening among cross-cultural friends.

P.S. — I’m sure there’s a better list to be made of common Western food that weirds out the average Mainlander. If you’ve got stories please share!

P.P.S. — Every image here is ours except for the American pie, the perogies and the prairie oysters (click for sources).

P.P.P.S — About cross-cultural negativity:

P.P.P.P.S - Was just walking to the school and found this huge caterpillar(?) on the way, so I brought it and asked the gate guard what it was and if it would bite my kids (they like to play with bugs). One of the teachers, my coworker, was leaving out the gate, glanced at it as she passed and said, “Oh, you can eat those!”

douchongsmall Cross cultural food: the feelings mutual

Sunrise taiji, our neighbourhood, Qingdao, China

taijivert.png 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
taijihorz01 Sunrise taiji, our neighbourhood, Qingdao, China
“Sunrise” as in “sun rising over the buildings.” :)
taijihorz02 Sunrise taiji, our neighbourhood, Qingdao, China
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.
taijihorz03 Sunrise taiji, our neighbourhood, Qingdao, China

The Chinese morning exercise scene is something to behold:

And so is breakfast:

More taiji from our neighbourhood:

Healthiness & the Passive-Aggressive Window Game: Chinese vs. Laowai

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

othercultures Healthiness & the Passive Aggressive Window Game: Chinese vs. LaowaiI 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.

What do you mean, ‘Why?’? Isn’t it obvious?

To someone with no understanding of traditional Chinese medicine, what Chinese often do for the sake of health makes absolutely no sense; it’s maddeningly contradictory. And one of many areas within this health disconnect that we perennially encounter involves temperature and “wind.” For example, “wind” and “cold” are bad. Do not serve a Chinese person a glass of refrigerated water — that’s practically criminally negligent; give them hot water, even (especially) when it’s hot outside. If you drink cold water you’ll get diarrhea, unless it’s winter — then you can eat ice cream outside. But I don’t care if it’s summertime: if you don’t put socks on that baby she’ll get diarrhea!

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!), 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.)

webweaver Healthiness & the Passive Aggressive Window Game: Chinese vs. Laowai“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.