The Obligatory Annual Kiss-up Ritual

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:
authorityinchina The Obligatory Annual Kiss up Ritual

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.

tast The Obligatory Annual Kiss up Ritual

Related:

Morality, ‘Face’ and China’s religious market

From Caixin, a translated interview about the moral state of Chinese society, the religious market in China, and the commercialization, vulgarization and voodooization of religion written by Yang Fenggang, professor of sociology and director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University.

I don’t actually agree with a lot of what he says – both in fundamentals and particulars – but it’s interesting to read an outsider’s take on Americans and American society, and I found the bit quoted below particularly interesting for the way he distinguishes external (Chinese ‘face’ concerns) and internal (“religious faith”) motivators for acting ethically and morally in a modern, urban context.

The Problem with Chinese Religions: Vulgarization and Voodooization
I don’t think all religions have positive impacts on social morality. But … Why does modern society seems more than ever need religious faith? Because modern society has turned society to be strangers society. … So, this is the real problem: in a “strangers society,” losing face is no longer a big concern in most people’s life most of the time. People can only be moral out of their own consciences. But where does this sense of conscience come from? Religious faith. When you don’t have a faith, you may say to yourself that ‘I want to be a good person, do good things,’ but very often people tend to give up halfway, especially when you encounter sticky problems and when the conflict of interest is very severe. It is usually human nature to think for self-benefit, thus, only with firm faith can we be moral and ethical. As China is developing rapidly, China needs a basis of faith to greatly improve its ethics and morality.

A recent commenter noted that in China people assume a legitimate moral double-standard between insiders and outsiders (the degree of perceived moral obligation to each is drastically different). Another culture reading I’m in the middle of right now talks about Chinese culture’s honour/shame orientation, how those are moral categories in China, and how “individuals do not exist apart from a web of relationships”. So several things I’ve come across at the same time are talking about how Chinese communalism and the relatively bright insider/outsider distinction plays out morally. And all that ties into the larger on-going discussion surrounding “Good Samaritans” in China — a topic recently big in the news but one on which I’ve been writing for a while.

Morality — the lack of it, actually — is a hot topic in China right now. So here’s some more about Mainland China’s moral collision with its post-Reform and Opening modern society:

The Tianjin Chengguan Street Market Game

Watching the street vendors and the chéngguǎn do their little dance at the street market near our apartment provides an interesting anecdote for two crucial Chinese cultural concepts: 人情 and 面子

59 marketDSCF4109 The Tianjin Chengguan Street Market Game

There’s a colourful, bustling, crowded and filthy street market near our neighbourhood (see here for more photos), and I suspect its days are numbered.

61 marketDSCF41111 The Tianjin Chengguan Street Market Game

Every time I go recently in the late afternoon there are chéngguǎn (城管:”city management” by-law enforcers) cooperatively hassling the illegal vendors who choke the roads leading to the Jade Spring Road Vegetable Market (玉泉路菜市场). By “cooperatively” I mean it’s a big game. The chéngguǎn deliberately and obviously drag their feet. Their van inches around the corner at the far end of one street, giving the vendors plenty of time to yell, bundle up their stuff, and, sometimes laughing, sometimes running, make a show of clearing off. Or they cover up their produce and act like they’re just hanging out… next to closed boxes full of tomatoes. The chéngguǎn take their sweet time pulling around, parking, and getting out. Then they saunter up the street, and as soon as they’ve passed by the vendors roll their sacks back out on the pavement and re-stack their cabbages, fish, rabbits, fruit, or whatever. The day I took the following photo, three of the chéngguǎn were sitting on the side of the road having tea with a couple vendors who had boxed up their stuff and had it stowed away right there beside them. I would have taken their photo, but we had our daughter with us and they were smiling and making faces at her. In the picture below, a chéngguǎn (on the left) ignores a vendor who has obediently folded up her produce in blankets in a pile beside her. She’s just waiting for them to leave so she can uncover her vegetables and start selling again.

20110411 36 The Tianjin Chengguan Street Market Game

I have seen a chéngguǎn in this market get a little mean (it was the guy in the picture above, about 30 seconds before I took the picture), and it was when a cucumber seller decided to ignore him and not make a show of clearing off as he approached. That seemed to make this particular chéngguǎn a little angry and he lunged for the guy’s wooden vegetable box, which was quickly yanked out of reach by a rope and dragged off down a side street. No attempt to pursue, even though he would have easily had it in about two or three steps.

72 DSCN3416 The Tianjin Chengguan Street Market Game

“Humanity” 人情 and “Face” 面子

I described all this to one of my Chinese coworkers, and he explained it with two terms: 人情 and 面子“Human feelings” 人情 is how he explained why the chéngguǎn carry out their orders to the absolute bare minimum ‘letter of the law’ degree, and how they can sit down and chat over tea with the same people they’re supposed to be hassling. They recognize a lot of these people, he said, and don’t want to stop them from trying to make a living; they personally couldn’t care less whether there’s a street market here or not. It’s nothing personal. But they have their orders, and the point of orders in China is to do just enough so that you can tell your superiors that you did them. The actual purpose of the order, the ‘spirit of the law’, is entirely beside the point, especially when your superiors are only giving you the order because their superiors gave it to them and they want to make their superiors happy because they’re working on a promotion.

The other key term he used was “face” 面子。 Why do they bother with the silly charade of bundling up their cabbages in full view of the chéngguǎn (who’s walking toward them maybe only a few meters away), and scooting off down an alley only to come back a few minutes later? It gives face to the chéngguǎn. It’s an acknowledgment of who’s in charge. Chéngguǎn can give these kinds of people all kinds of trouble if they want to; sometimes they can be brutal (see here, here, here and here). Sometimes the vendors fight back. The vendors are almost all illegal migrants near the bottom of society and without legal protection. They’ll yell and run and make a sincere effort to clear off as quickly as possible when they sense that they need to; they aren’t always laughing and you do sense fear sometimes, depending on the circumstances. But at least for now, in our particular street market, all the chéngguǎn require is a little “face”, a show of deference, a lack of defiance, tails between legs, and they’re satisfied.

65 marketDSCF4115 The Tianjin Chengguan Street Market Game

These streets are easily the most lively (热闹) in our area, but with the consistency of the harassment, half-hearted as it appears, I bet it’s only a matter of time before this one goes they same way as the street markets near our old place.

60 marketDSCF4110 The Tianjin Chengguan Street Market Game

There are more street market photos in the Our Tianjin 2010 photo gallery, which I just now finally finished uploading. So if you’ve seen it before there’s some new stuff (like sheep brains and an explosive dog). You can also see video of what it’s like to try and ride a bike through this market here: Tianjin Street Market Dash video.

Related stuff from the blog:

Related stuff from the web:

“So, how much did you donate?”

Donating money is a public thing in China — like a big group peer-pressure exercise. In your company, they might send an e-mail around listing everyone’s name and how much they donated. In neighbourhoods like ours, they’ll put up big posters by the main entrance with the names of residents who’ve donated and how much (and maybe whether or not they’re a Party member). Though there’s a common public standard for how much you should donate, you can’t donate too much or you’ll make other people look bad. For example, you wouldn’t want to publicly donate more than the company boss. Sometimes it goes beyond peer-pressure to coercion:

A few days ago a public servant friend said that, for the Wenchuan earthquake last time, at least the employees had been “mobilized” to donate; this time they simply had our salaries docked. The boss hypocritically notified everyone: Whoever doesn’t wish to donate, come talk to me in my office. Who dares to go to his office and say “I’m not willing to donate”? Unless one doesn’t wish to live! [from Yushu Earthquake Donation: Compassion or Tyranny?]

Our first encounter with this quirky (to us) practice of very public charity was after the Sichuan earthquake, when neighbours asked me point-blank home much we’d donated.

DSCN2502 So, how much did you donate?

“For Qīnghǎi Yùshù Disaster Area Donation Name List”
为青海玉树灾区捐款名单
wèi qīnghǎi yùshù zāiqū juānkuǎn míngdān

This time we decided to donate through our neighbourhood committee rather than through our N.G.O. Although the money would be better accounted for with our NGO (there’s controversy over what happened to large amounts of the Sichuan earthquake donations – see here, here, here and here) and we have a closer personal connection to how it would be used, this time we wanted to try a more local approach and we were curious to see how it would go over. Plus it’d be kind of funny to see our names up on the poster by the front gate.

If you haven’t heard, there was another big earthquake in which thousands of people died, this time in Yùshù, Qīnghǎi (青海玉树). See these links for more photos and controversy:

Related stuff on the blog:

DSCN2504 So, how much did you donate?

Chinese people like it when you “lie” to them?

(This post comes with a soundtrack; you can play it while you read! ;) )

C’mon baby, go ahead ‘n’ liiiie to me!

This is the unedited version of an expat magazine article about Chinese-American interpersonal miscommunication. It’s mostly to help new foreigners in Tianjin, especially Americans, deal with a common cross-cultural miscommunication problem.

It’s a little cheesy; just some basic Cross-Cultural Communication 101 kind of stuff in an area that routinely trips up American-Chinese communication (I’ve heard that Germans can be pretty bad about this particular problem, too).

To Lie or Not to Lie – that is (not necessarily) the question

Interpersonal communication ‘with Chinese characteristics’: A little understanding goes a long way when feelings get hurt by Chinese/Expat miscommunication

Cross-cultural conflict flashpoint: “honesty”
“Honesty” is a common miscommunication flashpoint between Mainlanders and Westerners – especially North Americans. Sometimes foreigners feel like their Chinese friends lie to them. They say they agree even when they don’t, and reply, “OK” even when they mean, “Not really.” Even if the foreigner later realizes that their Chinese friends didn’t intend to disrespect them, the foreigner might then feel like Chinese politeness requires lying. Chinese cultural expectations sometimes seem to demand a daily dose of “white lies” and multiple possible meanings to the word “yes.”

But things look different on the Chinese side. Our “undercover foreigner” friend confirms what the culture scholars are already telling us. She reports that one of the biggest complaints her Chinese friends have against their Western friends is that foreigners too often think that Chinese people lie to them. From their perspective, they’re communicating perfectly clearly and often being extra courteous. It’s frustrating and offensive when friends accuse you of lying, especially when you’re going out of your way to be nice!

In every culture there are genuine liars who disrespect and cheat others. Other than not be one yourself, there’s nothing you can do about this. But your Chinese friends probably don’t intend to deceive you any more than your other friends do. If it seems like they are, most likely you’re just reading them wrong. The problem is largely about conflicting culturally-conditioned communication styles, not dishonesty, and it plagues personal relationships, workplace discussions, and even international business negotiations. But you can understand “interpersonal communication with Chinese characteristics” and learn to use it without feeling personally compromised or overly suspicious toward your Chinese friends.

The “Meaning Beyond the Words” (言外之意): So, you’re saying “yes” really can mean “no”?
Every day we each “say” a lot without using words. Even when we do use words, nonverbal “statements” can be so powerful that the meanings conveyed by our posture, tone, facial expression, timing, or the context in which we’re speaking can sometimes completely override the literal meaning of our words. Sarcasm is one obvious example.

But different cultures don’t all rely on nonverbal signals to the same degree. Chinese typically express more of their meaning through nonverbal signals than Westerners do – especially Americans. We all make regular use of both verbal and nonverbal forms of communication, but comparatively, Americans are more “tuned in” to the words; Chinese are more tuned in to nonverbal channels.

A style of communication that especially emphasizes nonverbal signals makes it easy to clearly communicate a meaning that is different or opposite of the words’ literal meaning. To Americans, who focus relatively more on the literal meaning and fail to “hear” many of the nonverbal cues, this can easily look like lying.

It often happens that when a Chinese person wants to communicate a certain meaning to their American friend, they take their intended message and express large portions of it through their tone of voice, delivery, posture, and timing of their words. The actual words themselves may be relatively understated and hinting. But their American friend notices the literal meaning of the words more than anything else. The American may also notice some of the nonverbal signals but he might not understand all of them, and he wouldn’t think they’re that important anyway. The American leaves thinking he’s understood his Chinese friend clearly, but it’s only a matter of time before he’s disappointed. His Chinese friend will probably act on the meaning he intended to communicate, much of which was determined by his nonverbal signals. But the American’s expectations were built mostly on the literal meaning of the words that were spoken. And when his Chinese friend doesn’t do what he “said” he would do, it looks an awful lot like lying to the American.

Is all this really necessary? You bet your face (面子) it is!
All this laborious subtlety can annoy Westerners. Why can’t Mainlanders just be blunt and “say what they mean”? They certainly have no problem being blunt when they’re using guān xīn talk” (关心) and publicly commenting on how fat we are, asking about our personal finances, or telling us what we ought to wear, eat, or how to handle our kids!

First, it helps to remember that we all make regular use of nonverbals and subtlety, it’s just that Chinese people usually do it differently and do it more. Second, Chinese rely more heavily on nonverbals for a very big reason: it’s safer. In a social environment where concern for “face” (面子 / miàn zi) governs social interaction — one Chinese scholar calls “face” Chinese culture’s “social grammar” – blunt, direct talk is reckless. Indirect, implicit meanings are less potentially threatening to one another’s “face.” Of course, “face” is a concern that Americans neither understand nor care much about, but it’s an unavoidable characteristic of Chinese interaction.

Enough with the theory! Give me a real life example!
I was surprised one day when my Chinese teacher told me to “lie.” That week several people had pressured me for English tutoring, which usually involves asking for my phone number. This is common in Tianjin, where there are plenty of mothers willing to haggle a foreigner into some sort of English tutoring agreement. But I don’t want to just blow people off; often these are people I’ll continue to see regularly, like neighbours. Plus, I don’t blame them for taking a shot when they have the chance.

I asked my teacher how to refuse in a way that works – meaning they “get the message” and quit bugging me for English – but allows me to keep up a relationship with them.

My teacher suggested that making up a deliberately transparent excuse is better:

You can tell a ‘lie.’ Tell them that you’re in the middle of getting your phone number changed and you don’t have the new number yet.

I passed this suggestion by several locals and heard unanimous agreement. But in North America, that’s a lie – relatively harmless and obvious, but definitely a lie.

However, we’re not in North America. Does that make a difference in this case? What if everyone involved understands the words “my phone number is being switched at the moment” to actually mean “I don’t want to give you my phone number, but I also don’t want to create any bad feelings between us and I care enough about our relationship to protect your face in front of your coworkers”? The spoken words aren’t meant to be taken literally and they won’t be, but plenty of meaning is still accurately conveyed. The meaning isn’t in the words; it’s “beyond the words” (言外之意 / yán wài zhī yì).

They might not like that I refused, but they’ll see that I’m refusing in the nicest way possible. In fact, my teacher joked that if I tell this ‘lie,’ “…they might even think, ‘Wow, this foreigner really knows Chinese culture and how to be polite!’”

The experts’ advice
Learning to tune into our Chinese friends’ nonverbal cues will take time. Having a good friend who is patient with our lack of understanding and comfortable enough to be honest is invaluable. The following parallel advice from two Chinese cultural scholars* reflects the ideas I’ve written above.

Advice for foreigners interacting with Chinese:

  1. Focus on how something is said – relational and mutual-face meanings often outweigh literal, content meanings.
  2. Learn to read paralinguistic cues, such as facial expressions, body movements, gestures, and pauses.
  3. Develop a belief that words can be inadequate and insufficient.

Advice for Chinese interacting with foreigners:

  1. Focus on what is said; try not to read too much into the words or be oversensitive to nonverbal nuances.
  2. Learn to accept what is said.
  3. Develop a belief that verbal messages and feedback are powerful and effective.

———————
*From Communicating Effectively with the Chinese (1998) by Ge Gao and Stella W.C. Ting-Toomey, pp. 85-86.

National ‘Face’ & Local Sensitivity (Part 1): Not fit to print in Tianjin

Below is the un-censored version of a story that I wrote for the Sept. issue of a local expat magazine about our Opening Ceremony experience. It was originally rejected by the Chinese editor, who deemed it “too negative and too sensitive.” The red text is what I deleted or completely reworked to make it patriotically palatable (other stuff was edited out for space).

There are two editors, and in this case the (apologetic) American editor passed on the Chinese editor’s objections to me, which were mostly about offending patriotic sensitivities (paints a “too negative” image of China) and less about being politically careful. The American editor suggested several edits, including that I “really butter it up” regarding people not singing the national anthem and not cheering as much as I thought they would (it was “too negative” to mention these things). In ‘protest’ (for fun), I submitted this over-the-top rewrite, which they printed:

As the flag was raised the entire park immediately stood up for the national anthem. At first I was surprised that most people chose to stand respectfully rather than sing. But in hindsight, the piqued crowd was more likely struck speechless by the sight of their flag and national anthem being honoured before the entire world.

In the local atmosphere surrounding the Olympics, China’s “image” in the eyes of foreigners was (and still is) an intense concern. The same week that the article was rejected I received an hour’s worth of similar complaints about my previous articles from one of my teachers.

I’m posting this to give you a local snap shot of what can be considered offensive in Tianjin these days. It’s an unavoidable part of our China experience; people’s (hyper)sensitivity — especially our friends, neighbours, and teachers — is something we’ve had to navigate carefully during the Olympic summer.

Some caveats: While a lot of people here have similar feelings to this particular editor, there are also lots of other magazines in China publishing deliberately edgy material. There’s plenty of variety of opinion in China. Also, the degree of censorship varies from city to city and is largely determined by the particular tolerance level of local authorities. Tianjin is more conservative than many other areas.

Just skim down to the red text to see the naughty bits.

Watching the Opening Ceremony… with a few thousand Tianjiners!

It’s the sticky, steamy, most auspicious night of 08-08-08, and six foreigners from four different continents have decided to join thousands of Tianjiners in Tianjin’s “Milky Way Square” (银河广场 / yínhé guǎngchǎng) on Yǒuyì Lù (友谊路). We’re convinced there’s only one way for non-ticket holders to truly experience the most anticipated Opening Ceremony in the history of the Olympics: immersed in a crowd of excited Mainlanders. We unfold our 8 kuài folding stools, let some friendly fellow spectators take our picture, and settle in for a night we won’t soon forget.

You can watch a video of the crowds’ reactions to different segments of the Ceremony online at www.YouTube.com/BigNoseForeigner. Neither the video nor these accompanying photos do the scene justice. They only show part of one crowd, but because of how the park is designed there were actually three large separate crowds around the double-sided screen.

Spectating the Spectators
The last time I was with this many outdoor spectators I was on the beach in the next Olympic city: Vancouver, Canada. It was the Symphony of Fire, an annual international musical fireworks competition. But in Vancouver, large dense crowds often mean booze, marijuana, and some inevitable rowdiness. These few thousand Tianjiners behaved much more civilized than the Vancouverites; they were a giant Sunday school class by comparison. But it was still lots of fun watching them watch the dazzling and inexorably interminable Ode to Chinese Civilization-minus-the-20th-century that was the 2008 Olympics Opening Ceremony (开幕式 / kāimùshì).

The crowd applauded when the honour guard took the Chinese flag from the 56 minority children and marched smartly toward flag pole. As the flag was raised the entire park stood up for the national anthem like I expected, but hardly anyone sang! I thought they’d be going nuts. In Vancouver – where our meager patriotism mostly involves affirming that we’re not Americans – people would have been hollering O Canada half-drunk by that time. Maybe the outdoor sound system was too low, or maybe it was just too hot and humid. At that moment Tianjiners were piqued but respectfully restrained.

People ooh’d and aah’d at the artistic performances, yelling “hǎo!” (好 / good!) at especially impressive parts. Repeated shots of former president Jiāng Zémín (江泽民) and his wife Wáng Yěpíng (王冶坪) provoked a curious response from the crowd, as if they were laughing lightly in a good-natured sort of way.

Parade of Nations
The more exotic costumes and ethnicities provoked responses from the crowd. Particularly dark Africans and particularly fat women would cause scattered giggling or comments from a minority of the spectators near us. When one of the African flag carriers smiled big into the camera a guy sitting next to me said, “Wow, look at his teeth!” Close-ups of particularly glamourous female athletes got a reaction every time from some in the crowd. George Bush was given plenty of screen time, and he seemed to get a mild but positive response. Of the individual foreigners the biggest cheers probably went to LeBron James of the U.S. men’s basketball “Redeem Team.”

Taiwan’s athletes received big cheers from the crowd. Japan didn’t get booed much – just a handful of loud-mouths who were joking around, and they got disapproving looks from their neighbours.

Team Canada came out, and who did they have with them but the ubiquitous Dà Shān (大山) – “the most famous foreigner in China”! As a Canadian language student in China I have a special, complicated relationship with Dà Shān, whom I’ve never met. During my first few months of language study in Tianjin, it seemed every other sidewalk conversation went basically like this:

“Where are you from?”
“Canada.”
“Oh, Canada! Dà Shān’s country! Do you know who Dà Shān is?”
“Yes.”
“Your Mandarin isn’t as good as his.”

I took another couple months before I learned to say, “Yeah, and I hear his Mandarin is probably even better than your’s!” Dà Shān is the ultimate language and culture acquisition role model, with his flawless Mandarin and mastery of traditional Chinese stand-up comedy. As annoying as it is to be constantly compared to his virtually unattainable standard, he got a good rise out of our crowd that night, and I was proud to have him representing the Canucks.

Team China
By the time China’s athletes finally appeared we’d been there sweating for about three hours and the crowd had thinned a little. People’s newspaper seats were baked with sweat into the pavement. But when Yao Ming carried in the Chinese flag, flanked by a pint-sized earthquake hero from Sichuan, the fatigued but happy crowd loved it. People started cheering, clapping, waving flags and chanting “Zhōngguó jiāyóu!” (中国加油 / Go China!). People also loved seeing wider shots inside the Bird’s Nest that showed how big the Chinese team was.

During the final hour the cheering and enthusiasm really picked up, but only in pockets and for a minute or so at a time. I don’t know why but our self-appointed cheerleaders couldn’t get the whole crowd into it all at once. A couple times a small group around the TV crew would cheer with wild abandon while they were being filmed, but in general I was surprised that the crowd wasn’t more enthusiastic than they were. I assume it was simply a matter of heat and fatigue – four hours is a long time! – although neither could stop people from celebrating as the cauldron was lit in epic fashion.

Reading the Chinese Tea Leaves

The Ceremony is a key part of the carefully crafted self-portrait that China’s rulers have anxiously placed before their own people and the people of the world (two very different audiences in some respects). Mainlanders, for their part, are seeing their nation being redefined. For better or for worse, China’s methods of trying to craft this gilded self-image for the rest of the world are making a bigger impression on the rest of the world than the projected image itself. There’s no doubt that the 2008 Opening Ceremony was intended to send some messages. I’m not qualified to interpret these particular tea leaves, but I still have some questions: There was plenty of Confucius, but where was Chairman Mao? For that matter, where were the 19th and 20th centuries? Why were the lyrics to “Song to the Motherland” (歌唱祖国), which were mimed by nine-year-old Lín Miàokě (林妙可), rewritten? And what do those edits mean? Some say the giant painting drawn throughout the performance makes oblique, politically-coded references to Mao, but the nations of the world colourfully trampled all over that painting.

I don’t know what it all was intended to mean, what the average Mainlander understands it to mean, or what it really does mean in the big picture. But I do know it meant a lot to a lot of people, and I appreciate our gracious Tianjin hosts for allowing us to experience it with them. Thanks Tianjin for a memorable night!

(P.S. — Expat magazines in third-tier Chinese cities are a good opportunity for nonprofessional writers to get some practice because the standards are relatively low. I use it as a no-pressure way to work on a style of writing that I’m not accustomed to, and practice oral Chinese (in the interviews). )

China’s “raging youth” (and don’t worry, we’re all fine here)

I don’t know what they’re showing in the news back home, so we just wanted to post a quick note saying we’re fine and Tianjin is real relaxed and there’s no danger, etc.

In case you’re wondering what on earth we’re talking about, there’re lots of stirred-up, angry folks in China right now. The Chinese term is “angry youth” (愤怒青年); fènqīng for short. In English they’re just called fenqing.

Carrefour (the French Walmart) is being boycotted/protested in cities across the country (because it’s French), and CNN is bearing the brunt of the (vitriolic) anti-Western-media sentiment for misreporting on certain recent events and for airing certain comments from an outspoken commentator. One American in an inland city was punched around a bit hasseled on Sunday by a mob when he tried to exit a Carrefour.

Our teachers and language helpers are talking about it in class. One of them forwarded me one of the many patriotic/anti-Carrefour text messages going around people’s cell phones. It says:

Carrefour showed its hand, buy 500 get ‘250’ [“250″ means “idiot”]. One supermarket and one lofty and unyielding character face one another in confrontation, in the end who wins?! All who don’t go, in order for the world to look up to China. Now must all in one heart please pass this on

家乐福出手了,买五百送二百五。一个超市和一把 傲骨 的对垒,到底谁赢?!谁都别去,为了世界看得起 中国。这次一定要齐心请转发

Some of our teachers are “boycotting” Carrefour, but one complains that Tianjiners are so cheap that that Tianjin can’t pull off a real boycott like other Chinese cities because Tianjiners will shop where it’s cheapest no matter what (ha! – so Tianjin). Because Tianjin is a special economic zone on the coast, it’s a little more cosmopolitan than many inland cities (…I can’t believe I just called Tianjin cosmopolitan! :D ) We aren’t expecting any trouble.

Anyway, we don’t know how this is all being reported back home, and just didn’t want people to worry in case the coverage of overly sensational.

If you’re interested about the situation, here are some interesting, pertinent links in suggested reading order:

If you’re wondering why Mainlanders are apparently so hypersensitive, I suggest starting here:

[Updated 08-05-02]: Text messages are playing an interesting role in Chinese society, from calling the patriotic masses to rise up (quoted above) to funny social satire, as seen here: “The text message as satire.”

No politically-oriented comments allowed – thanks.