Stupid lǎowài thinks he wants to go dōngyǒng in the Wèijīn Hé!

(This time last winter, when my Chinese was even worse, I wrote about this funny experience with Mr. Lù but for some reason it never got posted. Here it is almost exactly a year later, but still funny. I like it ’cause it shows how these guys are sometimes.)

The first interview I wrote up was on Mr. Lù, the neighbourhood bike repairman, and I’m glad I didn’t delete this sentence: “…and he’s not too stiff to have a little fun at the foreigner‘s expense.” It’s so true, as I am continually finding out.

Old men do polar bear swims here – they call it dōngyÇ’ng (冬泳). It’s a health thing. One day on the way in I noticed that someone had carved a huge rectangle in the ice on the canal (Tianjin’s 卫津河), big enough for three men to tread water in. The ice fishermen usually only make little holes about a foot across. Just for fun I asked Mr. Lù, who was at his corner like usual, who’s been swimming in the canal. He immediately replied with a straight face, “Me.” I was like, “What? Really?” (I’ve come to recognize this immediate, straight-faced reply in other questionable situations involving the canal as well.)

Mr. Lù: “Of course. Me and a couple friends go every morning. Lots of people do this; it’s called dōngyÇ’ng.”


Mr. Lù: “Sure!”

Me: “When are you going next?”

Mr. Lù: “Tomorrow morning. You can meet us at 7am and have a look.”

I knew for a fact people did this at the Water Park where there’s a lake, but I’d never seen anyone swim in the canal. Still, I was all set to go have a look. I went to do some homework, and by the time I’d returned I’d decided I was going to join them — how could pass up an opportunity like that? Mr. Lù said sure, but tried to dissuade me, “First we exercise, then go in.”

Me: “How long do we swim?”

Mr. Lù: “Half and hour.”

Me: “30 minutes?!”

Mr. Lù: “Of course.”

Me: “I can maybe do half a minute!”

Mr. Lù: “Oh, we swim for half an hour.”

At this point Mr. Sòng, who’d discovered what was going on while I was away doing homework, stepped in. They had a conversation I couldn’t follow, and the end result was that Mr. Lù said Mr. Sòng wouldn’t let him let me swim in the river. I thought it was because they thought I’m a foreigner and I haven’t been working myself up to this all year long like the old guys in the water park lake.

It turns out, we discovered weeks later when we went to Mr. Sòng’s and Mrs. Li’s for lunch, that Mr. Lù was making the whole thing up just to have a little fun with the foreigner! I still don’t know why they bothered to carve such a huge hole in the ice, but it had nothing to do with polar bear swims.

(I got the exact same response from Mr. Lù this winter when I asked him when the ice was safe enough to walk on. He replied immediately, “Right now, let’s go!” just like he had last winter when I asked the same question, only that time I believed him.)

Meet Mrs. Shǐ – Striving Hard for a Stable Future

Mrs. Shǐ is December’s Regular Zhou. The magazine seems to share similar feelings with one other critic who doesn’t appreciate having China’s blue collar folks telling their stories in foreigners’ magazines. So I guess from now on they’ll be “above-average Joe’s,” or at least for the next few months while we’re in Canada and I have to interview over e-mail.

As usual, the blog version below has better photos and includes the more interesting content. But I still haven’t included any of the horrific Cultural Revolution stories she told, or her complaints about the Olympics.

Striving Hard for a Stable Future

How one Tianjiner works daily to give her son a better life, one plate of chǎo bǐng at a time.

Mrs. Shǐ is my favourite kind of Tianjiner. She’s warm and engaging, ready for conversation, and patient with language students’ pathetic Mandarin. If you’ve got the time and the ear, she’s willing to share all kinds of stories from her experiences growing up in Tianjin during China’s tumultuous last 50 years. Plus, she makes great chǎo bǐng (炒饼) and dàbǐng jīdàn (大饼鸡蛋), able to warm both the stomach and the heart.

Mrs. Shǐ, whose given name evokes images of mountains with colourful clouds, sells breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the occasional midnight snack from her xiǎomàibù (小卖部), the little shop she’s carved out of a first floor apartment that she shares with her 25-year-old son. She used to sell food from an outdoor stall in a bustling street market for eleven years before the market was cleared away in a nationwide sanitation campaign.

I’m often there at lunchtime, when the tables and stools out on the sidewalk are filled with hungry college students, vegetable market shoppers, and workmen. Inside the walls are lined floor to ceiling with shelves that overflow with snack food, cigarettes, alcohol, and seemingly random items like a large bag full of beer bottle caps. In between the newly-acquired fridge and a small low table with plastic stools there’s just enough room to take three steps to the cooking area, where she single-handledly produces dozens of meals every day.

Daily Routine
She gets up at 5:30 every morning, arranges the displays, tables, and chairs on the sidewalk, and prepares to start serving breakfast at 6am. After breakfast she makes some purchases, cuts up cabbage and cucumber, and gets ready for the lunch rush. After lunch she’ll rest her head in her arms over the freezer and take a nap. She finally closes shop at 11pm, but that doesn’t always stop customers.

At 12:30am they knock on my door and I have to sell: “Ayi! Ayi! I want dàbǐng jÄ«dàn!” I haven’t counted how much I sleep at night. I close shop, eat dinner, shower, drink some water, watch a little TV, then go to sleep at I don’t know what time, maybe 1am or 2am. For twelve years I’ve managed like this.

Growing Up
Her living situation today is better than it was in past decades, when she remembers food rationing and being unable to buy things, even if you had the money. Still, some of her favourite memories are of her childhood in Tianjin’s “South City No-Man’s-Land” (南市三不管儿 / nánshì sānbùguǎnr), which until recently was one of Tianjin’s most well-known historical neighbourhoods, famous for its noisy, packed street markets containing all manner of food and entertainment. Nanshi Food Street (南市食品街 / nánshì shípǐn jiē) now sits near where she grew up as the middle child of seven.

When I was little I was pretty mischievious, even though I was a girl. I was a tomboy. Growing up in Nanshi was good. I could talk about Nanshi from morning ‘til night. It was really rènao (热闹 / loud, bustling, lively), especially in the evenings. There were wrestlers, storytellers, hot rice vendors, soup vendors, all crying out, it was fun to hear. You could buy big snails, five or six for two máo ($0.03). When we were small we couldn’t cook; we’d just go to the food vendors.

I had my son in Nanshi. When he was one-and-a-half, in 1983 on May 26, I moved to our current place. That was when they built Food Street and assigned us housing according to the number of people in our family. Now I have my own house to live in. In the old place I didn’t have my own room, but I like the old place. It was rènao and convenient. Now it’s already gone; it’s all Food Street now. It’s been more than twenty years, but I still cherish the memories of Nanshi.

Future Hopes
The turbulance of the past still impacts her life today, as it does for millions of Mainlanders from her generation. When the Cultural Revolution broke out she was just starting middle school. That means she essentially never had a chance for a real, normal education, but still has to make do in today’s market economy. “Long live Chairman Mao” is the only thing she can say in English. She’s come through hard times, and those life experiences shape her hopes for the future:

I wish my son was able to go abroad, like the way you came to our country. But I can’t be too idealistic. I don’t have desire or hope anything for myself. I just hope my son’s future is able to be good. I don’t hope that in the future he becomes a boss or whatever. Just so long as he doesn’t have to have the kind of difficulties I’ve had it’s fine.

My most important desire is to hurry and make money so my son can buy his own place and get a wife, and have a stable life – a little bit better life. Right now I feel tired, but I can’t stop because life pressures are too great. My son is going to university and working, earning his own tuition.

I can’t resist asking Mrs. Shǐ what she thinks of foreigners:

I’ve had contact with Japanese, Americans – I’m in contact with a lot of foreigners. We get along really good. Aside from nationality, we’re all friends, and also all neighbours, right? It’s just our skin colour is different. I wish foreigners and us would talk and communicate more.

How to: Hang with the homies and not get totally hammered

Mr. Lù invited me to have dinner with the old boys tonight. I had a total blast. Undoubtedly the alcohol helped, especially for Mr. Lù. Fortunately, I knew it would be that way, and prepared accordingly. I know enough Chinese to catch and contribute to some of the jokes, and just the fact that I can do that is apparently really stinkin’ funny for these guys. From left to right: Mr. Zhāng, Sòng, Guō, Lǘ, and Lù (Mr. Guō is apparently the one who first suggested the Chinese name they all use for me:

I knew there’d be a lot of alcohol – there always is, never mind that the invitation is literally “invite you to drink alcohol.” I was supposed to meet them at 6pm, so I ate a ton of food at 5:30. Having had a few practice rounds with these guys in the past made it a lot easier this time to relax and have fun without worrying about either drinking too much or not being kèqi (客气) enough when refusing more drinks. And, thankfully, Chinese cups are smaller than North American cups, plus East Asians are genetically among the weakest drinkers in the world. In the middle of it all I managed to record the interview I need for an upcoming magazine article, despite Mr. Lù’s protests that I not record when he’s been drinking.

It was nice that their invitation came when it did. It’s easy to read the news right now and be tempted to think all kinds of negative, suspicious things about Mainlanders. People can say whatever they want in the news about Mainlanders and the issues surrounding the Olympics – but the Tianjiners we know are great.

The longer we stay here, the easier it is to know how and when to refuse too many drinks. It’s no joke, though, that if you’re going to eat with Mainlanders, especially if you’re a guy, you’d either better go in with a plan or be ready to get hammered.

Meet Mr. Lù – a living Léi FÄ“ng

(This is the first in an as yet unnamed monthly series that tries to introduce foreigners to Tianjin’s “regular Zhou’s” – the 老百姓 (“old hundred-names”; common folk) who form the beating heart of Tianjin. Mr. Cháng, the sidewalk barber, is next. The interviews are severely hindered by my lack of Mandarin and it shows, but it’s still a fun project. This blog version contains some extra details that wouldn’t fit the space requirements in the magazine. Other adventures with Mr. Lù and the old boys club are listed at the end of this article. Mouseover the Chinese characters to see the pronunciation.)

A Modern-day Living Lei Feng
His friends call him a “modern-day living Léi FÄ“ng” (新时代的活雷锋), after the orphaned Mao-era peasant soldier famous for his unselfishness toward fellow comrades and selfless devotion to the Communist cause. The “Léi FÄ“ng spirit” (雷锋精神) lives on today in elementary school textbooks, songs, an online video game, advertisements, and popular imagination as a way to describe people who go out of their way to help others. It also lives on in people like Mr. Lù, our neighbourhood’s bike repairman. The way he and his friends have treated my wife, myself, and even my second-hand, high-maintenance, fake Flying Pigeon bicycle make it obvious why his friends give him this title. This “modern day living Léi FÄ“ng” extends a generous helping hand to locals and foreigners alike, and he has a good deal of fun doing it.

Mr. Lù fixes bikes on the corner near our neighbourhood’s front gate every day from 7am to 5pm (8pm in the summer). But from my perspective as the one of only three foreigners in the community, we should include Welcoming Committee and Host in his job description. I don’t know if giving foreigners a warm welcome and helping them feel at home in China is a big part of the “real” Léi FÄ“ng’s official legacy or not, but it’s certainly a part of Mr. Lù’s. It’s people like Mr. Lù and his friends that make living in a Chinese neighborhood so much more enjoyable for the new foreigners.

My wife and I first moved into this community in April 2007. We were fresh off the boat with a grand total of six weeks of Chinese class under our belts, meaning we could point and mumble in the vegetable market and usually get what we wanted if we’d reviewed the vocabulary beforehand. Aside from that rather necessary survival skill, we couldn’t communicate much of anything. But that didn’t stop Mr. Lù and his friends from inviting us over to sit and chat when they were having lunch outside or from being generous with their food and bái jiÇ” (白酒 – the infamous Chinese alcoholic drink akin to “white lightning”). Not daunted by the language barrier, Mr. Lù used food, snacks, drinks, rounds of Chinese chess, and a lot of friendly banter to make it clear that we were welcome to stop by for more than just getting tires patched and brake pads replaced.

Some days he’s drowning in bicycles, and it looks like the repair jobs people have dropped off are laying siege to his mobile tool shed. He’ll fix more than thirty bikes on busy days, but after twelve years of repairing bicycles he’s not intimidated by the heavier work load. He enjoys the extra work and the extra pay that comes with it.

When he’s not too busy he can fit in an after-lunch nap, go fishing on the canal, or chat it up with whoever’s around. Sometimes there can be small crowd; his repair corner can be a social hot spot, and he’s not too stiff to have some good-natured laughs at the foreigner’s expense. Neighbours occasionally choose his corner for a game of Chinese chess, which usually draws more participants than just the required two. As the eighth of nine children and the fifth brother (he has three sisters), I imagine he learned early on how to handle a crowd.

When I first learned of his family’s size, I was shocked. Nine children? But it was the same for his friends. Decades ago Mao had said, “More people, greater strength” (人多力量大), and people were encouraged to have large families and make more workers for the development of the economy. This policy was short-lived, but for Mr. Lù’s generation – people who today are old enough to be grandparents – families of this size are not uncommon. Mr. Lù and his wife have a daughter in her mid-twenties who works for an oil company.

Despite his warm and easy-going manner, Mr. Lù doesn’t necessarily have it easy. He makes 1500 to 2000å…ƒ (yuán) per month (about $200-$275), and rent for him and his wife is only a little over 80å…ƒ per month ($11) because the apartment is provided through his work unit (单位). However, he no longer has the security he once enjoyed when working for his government work unit at a state-owned textile factory. Like many Mainlanders of his generation, the “iron rice bowl” (铁饭碗) has cracked; the state-owned enterprises that haven’t been closed or sold can no longer provide jobs for everyone. People like Mr. Lù, while still retaining some benefits from the old days like a cheaper apartment, have to fend for themselves financially. He misses the time when he didn’t have to worry about the basics of life, and when it was easier to find work.

When he was younger jobs were easier to come by. He’s worked for several different companies over the years, including a furniture factory and the Tianjin Daily newspaper offices. But he’s older now, and potential employers are less interested. He worries about retirement, which usually happens at 60, and how he’ll manage. More people are riding buses and taxis than in the past, and car ownership is on the rise. No one feels the gradual decline in bicycle use more keenly than bike repairmen like Mr. Lù. He jokes about how hard it is to find a bathroom when working outside, but the gradual decrease in work is his biggest work related difficulty. He wishes that the government could somehow help him improve his life, but he doesn’t receive any work or money from the state.

These worries don’t hinder his generosity. He charges little for his work, and sometimes even refuses to take money, to the point of pulling it out of the money jar and stuffing it directly back into people’s pockets. I’ve not only witnessed him do this to others, but personally experienced it myself.

Mr. Lù hasn’t had a lot of contact with foreigners, but aside from a decidedly unfavourable impression of South Koreans, he says we’re alright, and hopes that we will learn Mandarin well and bring Chinese culture and history back to our home countries.

Additional info on the “real” Lei Feng:

P.S. – I just now delivered a copy of the magazine and some photos to Mr. Lù, and they seemed to really get a kick out of it. He didn’t seem to mind that the editors used the wrong lù character for his name in the translation (he’s è·¯, not 陆).

The Old Boys Club

“He’s a woman.”

“You’re wife is your boss.”

“He’s too stupid!”

There’s a group of older guys who work/loiter at the entrance to our apartment complex. At least one of them is a bike repair man, but I can’t ever tell who actually works and who is just hanging out. They’re great for language practice and a lot of fun, and they love it if one or both us sit down to chat for a bit and share some food or beer or 白酒. But they can’t seem to deal with the fact that I have a limit to how much I’ll drink, and no amount of goading or joking or guilt-tripping or verbal abuse is going to get me to drink more. I think it will take a while before they finally give up and accept it. And it will also be a little while before they discover that we understand phrases like the ones above, which we heard last night.

We’ve heard from Chinese that even many Chinese don’t actually like the culturally perpetuated drinking rituals. It was interesting to watch different guys last night react to me genuinely refusing more bái jiÇ” (sort of a Chinese “white lighting”). One guy plays the host and puts up the biggest fuss when you refuse more. The oldest guy in the group actually sticks up for me now. One guy was an old friend of theirs visiting last night (he doesn’t live in the neighbourhood), and he would waver between accepting more and refusing, like it was some sort of torturous decision. The others just sit around and laugh at everything. I imagine that having someone who genuinely refuses and is impervious to the social pressure and who can get away with social faux pas on account of being a cultural outsider might be like throwing a new factor into the equation that these guys haven’t dealt with before.

It would take a long time to model an alternative vision of manhood for these guys – one that isn’t dependent on how much you drink and has the kahones to stand up to peer pressure. And that might be an impossible task for me, being a cultural outsider and being from a different generation. Either way, hopefully I won’t – in some culture-stress-induced moment of supreme annoyance and weakness – share with them the fact that Chinese men are biologically among the weakest drinkers in world, and so if drinking is your measure of manhood… but culture stress has been known to make a person do all kinds of things.


Pronounced: bái jiǔ
Literally: white alcohol
Means: the infamous really strong and virtually unavoidable alcoholic drink popular in many parts of China.

Homework with whisky and singing

Today I had whiskey with dofu chasers.

On the way out to the park to do some homework, I stopped at the bike repair guy’s corner to see if Mr. Lu would tighten my bike seat. Every time I went over a bump the seat would go vertical. He told me to sit down with his buddies for a snack, which turned out to be peanuts, shredded dofu, and whisky, with the dofu as the chaser. We ended up ‘chatting’ for almost an hour (not that I have anywhere near enough Mandarin to sustain a conversation that long).

We’ve read and heard lots about Chinese drinking customs, about how they should be avoided at all costs, and how they’re hard to avoid. At informal occasions like mine today, but especially at banquets, there can be a lot of toasting with strong drinks. It’s mostly the men; apparently it’s a manly-man thing to drink a lot, and there can be lots of goading and pressuring to get reluctant participants to drink more than they should. (Ironically, ethnic Chinese have one of the lowest genetic tolerances for alcohol, meaning that on average they get drunk easier than everyone else. Manly-man indeed…) Our friends that have lived here long enough, especially those that work in some sort of official capacity, have had to face the banquet scene a few times. They told us they just tell people something like, “We’re Christians so we don’t drink,” even if they do drink occasionally, and the rationale was that your only other choice is to get hammered. I never understood why it was apparently so hard to just stop after one drink. Can’t you just tell people no?

Today I got a small taste of how hard it can be. I only had one, but man I had to fight to keep it at one! These guys were persistent, to the point of trying to grab my cup and fill it for me, or trying to fill it when I was holding it and not paying attention for split second, or giving me all kinds of arguments and guilt trips (I imagine… Mr. Lu doesn’t slow down or simplify his speech for foreigners like others sometimes do so I don’t know what he was saying aside from the non-verbals). I wonder if a little bit has to do with you giving them face by accepting their hospitality, and saying no can be a little loss of face or something. Since you have to work so hard to refuse more, to the point of almost making a little scene, I can see how the pressure would be even greater at formal banquets where there’s a lot more face going around.

Still, tough rocks. I’m not going to be your drunk foreigner entertainment, and I’ve got more interesting ways to affirm my masculinity.

But we still had a good time. After the snack, I found a bench in the park and ending up talking with someone else for another hour. Then he saw one of his friends and we sat and talked with him. Jessica found us by then, and he and his friend (an erhu musician) sang us this song:

I’d tell you what it’s about, but, ah… it has something to do with “Who are you?” and the army… I think.

While I was talking in the park, this was going on. I promise you won’t get this stuff back home:

The guy I was chatting with asked me if I liked it. I told him it was interesting.

Tomorrow is May 4th, officially one of the most important holidays in China. Workers get a week off of work. Every gate on every apartment building around us (hundreds) is flying a Chinese flag. Fireworks almost every night. You can click here to see how a government site explains the significance of the May 4th Movement. It would be interesting to compare this to what is written in your history textbooks. From said government site:

Under the influence of the October Revolution in Russia, China’s May 4th Movement arose. During this great anti-imperialist, anti-feudal revolutionary movement led by patriotic students, the Chinese proletariat for the first time mounted the political stage. The May 4th Movement marked the change of the old democratic revolution to the new democratic revolution. It enabled Marxism-Leninism to further spread and link up with the Chinese people’s revolutionary practice, and prepared the ideology as well as the cadres necessary for the founding of the Communist Party of China…