Last fall when the exigencies of typhoon season caused me to spend the better part of a night and a day in the Tokyo airport Terminal Two transit lounge, I met an American businessman who’d been living in China for more than 20 years. I asked him if he had any handy tips for successful living in China. He replied that in order to live in this land and like it, you need two things, equally important: a) some command of Mandarin Chinese, and b) a sense of humor.
I think he’s right: if all you’ve got is the former, prepare to be miserable, and if all you’ve got is the latter, prepare to be hysterical.
I’ve written before about the importance of speaking Chinese in facilitating just about every aspect of life here. So now I’d like to point out a few key moments when the sense of humor is of greater – even paramount – importance. In no particular order, times in which I feel it is vital to choose to be amused:
1. The first time (and, for that matter, all subsequent times) you are accidentally spat on. This is almost never intentional, at least in my experience, which I base on the fact that when I’ve been spat on it has never once been preceded by a cry of “big-nosed foreign devil!” or “running-dog capitalist!” or any other similar epithet. The spitter was also not even aware that he’d hit someone.
I don’t think I’ve ever even been spit on as a pedestrian: this is strictly a biking issue. The problem is simple: Chinese people spit a lot. Sometimes they look where they are spitting. Sometimes they do not. When they are on bicycles and you are in the midst of the pack in rush hour, sooner or later someone will be loosing some saliva at the exact moment you are trying to pass them. It is an inevitable fact of life, and the sooner one accepts this with grace and good humor, the happier one will be. But I suspect it will become tougher to take when we enter short-sleeves season.
2. When the archives presents you with the “finding aid” (a list) for ordering files from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and it consists of a list of 3,594 files dating between 1912 and 1949 from all geographic regions, and (this is the kicker) in no particular order. That is a “you know you’re in China when…” moment. File 564 is a map of India, 565 contains the expense reports for the Chinese Embassy in Portugal, 566 is about World War II displaced persons, 567 is about the US army’s use of the Burma Road… and so on. I don’t care how many thousands of years of culture, philosophy and invention China has under its belt. No civilization can truly be called great that cannot grasp the concept and utility of an index.
3. When you trip over a monkey on your way into the grocery store. Perhaps you wonder how I could possibly trip over a monkey while entering my local supermarket. The answer is simple: I didn’t see him. Thanks to the magic of laser technology I now have better than 20/20 vision, so this just might require more explanation. If not, humor me.
I went to the grocery store to pick up a few pre-Chinese New Year provisions (specifically, frozen dumplings for New Year’s Eve and frozen tangyuan for New Year’s morning). Outside the grocery store was the usual chaos of independent sellers – people who bring a few selections of vegetables in baskets or some fresh chicken (which is to say, alive and walking around) and sell them for prices that undercut the chain store. The combination of tubs of swimming fish and eel, clucking birds, and chatting merchants all crowding the sidewalks in front of the store entrance makes for a bit of an obstacle course for a shopper intent on making her purchases from among things reassuringly packed in plastic and Styrofoam and stacked under neon lights rather than on the ground. (Actually, I’m not against the market-style selling – but I am loyal to my own vegetable seller, who operates her stand closer to my house, so my grocery store purchases involve only important items like frozen foods and Cheerios.) The commotion is distracting, and it takes some effort to pick a path through the hubbub to get to the entrance. Just as I approached the door, I tripped over a large dog on a chain. As I righted myself, I looked into its eyes only to discover that it wasn’t a dog, it was a monkey. Sitting, he came up past my knees. He was wearing a little hat and a vest, and chained to an elderly, toothless man who lacked only an organ to grind to complete the look. The monkey did, however, have a tiny little bicycle. Perhaps all Chinese monkeys bicycle.
The man must have thought it was his lucky day, being stumbled over (or, more accurately, being tripped over by) a foreigner on this random Saturday, because he immediately grabbed the little bike and prodded the monkey into action. As far as action goes, however, I’ve been more impressed. The monkey didn’t even move when I hit it as I tripped – Complacency, thy name is Supermarket Entertainment Monkey.
I went into the store, and I got the impression that the man had spent the whole time I was shopping trying to work up a Monkey Extravaganza for my exit. When I came out, however, the monkey was on the other side of the door. I gave him a few kuai for getting the monkey to move, as I was beginning to suspect that to be a feat that resembled a force of nature. Within a few days, the monkey and his handler had moved on – perhaps to more Monkey-friendly audiences in other parts of the province. I was sorry not to have gotten a picture of him, but when was the last time you took your camera to the grocery store, just in case there was a live animal performance? Thought so.
4. When faced with a squat toilet on a moving train. I refuse to elaborate, other than to say, “tricky.” Actually, the public facilities in China are full of interesting challenges for foreigners – not least of which is getting over personal hang-ups about having doors on stalls and little things like that — but these are not the sort of things that, I daresay, you want me to elaborate on. Just trust me on this.
5. When buying designer clothes in a street market. Last weekend, I accompanied Lancelot and some of his friends to a huge clothing market in Shanghai to buy some new shirts (apparently, he has a hard time finding shirts in Korea that are big enough). The market we went to was a multi-building, multi-story affair packed tight with merchant stalls selling every kind of clothing from sparkly socks to pin-stripe suits. It had absolutely everything you could possibly want, except for shirts with sleeves long enough for a (really) tall foreigner. The problem with these markets, really, is that the merchants can take one look at you and know that they don’t have your size. You can pick up a shirt and know for certain that they aren’t going to have your size. Everyone is completely and totally aware that there is no chance of you buying something there that will ever, ever fit you. But they will always try to sell it to you anyway. So you will find yourself the victim of mile-a-minute descriptions of price, color and quality, ending with you finding yourself energetically debating the merits of the shirt that, if actually tried on, would leave your wrists uncomfortably exposed to the elements and your shoulders caged into a rather limited range of motion.
I’ve done it over a variety of items, ranging from clothing to imitation antique Mao propaganda posters – and I’m always deep into the discussion before I start to wonder how it all started when I have absolutely no intention of buying anything. Worse yet, sometimes I end up making the purchase, because having spent twenty minutes haggling with the seller in a marvelous exercise in Chinese conversation and brought the already-low price down a sliver more, I feel bad walking away. I then trudge home, slightly disgruntled, with my totally extraneous new purple plastic Winnie-the-Pooh key case or magazine about the science of space travel filled with the knowledge that I will never see that 83 cents again and will likely not even bother bringing my new purchase home from China. I don’t have any retro Chinese Communist Party posters yet, but I had a very, very narrow escape with an English version of Mao’s Little Red Book. And it is an absolute miracle that I managed to emerge from Chinese New Year chicken-free. I’d ship all my “guilt purchases” home, but they are never, frankly, worth the price of postage; their only value is the slightly bitter laugh I get at my own expense for being so easily taken.
Ahem. Back to the matter at hand: Lancelot did not find any shirts of appropriate size at said market. He’s done his shopping in Shanghai before, however, so we split up so I could go get lost in the bookstores and he could head off to a longer-sleeved market. Later we sat down and compared purchases. I had hit the classic movie DVD section hard, finding such treasures as To Be or Not To Be and His Girl Friday, which sell all over China for anywhere from $1 to $1.50. Lancelot, on the other hand, scored really big. He had purchased a dozen button-down shirts in a veritable rainbow of colors and patterns, each sporting an A-list brand name and a rock-bottom price. As he was removing the packaging and refolding the shirts, however, he started reading the tag off his $5 Armani shirt. I had the privilege to see Lancelot doubled over in a fit of what I am afraid can only be described as the giggles. Having read it myself, I think the tag opens the door to the possibility, however remote, that the shirt in question was not actually a genuine Armani product. At least, I’ve never heard of that great Armani slogan, “The Best High Fashionable.” (But then, Giorgio Aramani would have been a non-native speaker of English….) The tag goes on to explain just what makes an Armani shirt so special:
“This garment has been manufsctued with dye tissue, withindaco’ colorants and/or with dewashable colorans.It has undergone a specific process of industrial washing which gives the garm ent a washed out or ‘owrn’ look, with worm out patches and decoloration on seevral pieces of the garment, this process of making the tabric appear worn out.continues with the nex washing without olwering the original quality of the garment.” This informative treatise is followed by the rather flamboyantly titled, “Wash away dirt: the elucidation,” which instructs the owner, “Do not bleach. Do not wrench. Do not channeling machine dry.” I suspect these precautions are necessary to protect the “owrn” look of the garment.
Amusing Chinglish aside, there are some ways in which just traveling together requires both Lancelot and me to sharpen our senses of humor. We have very, very different styles of doing things, rooted in that fundamental difference between human beings who are planners and those who are, let’s be frank, headstrong and disorganized (gee, which one am I?). Originally, I had planed to take the train on Sunday to Shanghai to meet up with Lancelot, who’d already been there a few days. He called Friday and explained that we’d being going on an outing with some friends of his on Sunday, so in order to get an early start, do I think I could come on Saturday evening?
My response: silence.
Lancelot: Um, Saturday? Okay?
Me: But I was planning on coming on Sunday.
Lancelot: Yeah, I know, but tomorrow would be better.
Me: But Sunday…
Lancelot: Did you already buy a train ticket for Sunday?
Lancelot: Do you have something going on that you can’t come until Sunday?
Lancelot: Is it a problem to come on Sunday?
Me: That wasn’t the plan. Now I have to buy a ticket tomorrow morning.
Lancelot: Can you buy a ticket tomorrow morning?
Me: Yes. But that wasn’t the plan.
I got over it, of course, and bought a train ticket on Saturday morning and took a train Saturday afternoon and it was all fine. But a similar issue came up a few days later when we tried to split up and meet back later after I had an appointment. The problem was that I didn’t know when the appointment would end. But how we each suggested alternatives to deal with the issue of meeting up reveals much about each of our personalities. Lancelot’s plan: After the appointment, head over to the subway stop at I think it’s called Shanxi or something like that anyway just a stop past the one you’re at and there on the main road there I think it’s called Wa-hai Road there is a Starbucks a block or two in one direction or the other from the subway stop and I’ll see you there around then. My plan: I don’t do “somewhere there is a Starbucks.” There must be a definite time and a definite place. I will meet you at 7:30 p.m., which is safely after the longest my appointment could take, at the number one exit from the Shanxi subway station.
The problem with this kind of argument is that we were each convinced that the other was being completely and utterly unreasonable, and that can make it hard to communicate. Just imagine how irked I was when I went over the Shanxi road that night and found that the Starbucks he had referred to really was as easy to find as advertised. What’s more, it would have been a nicer place to wait than the number one exit of the subway (my plan had won the day, just because I’m more ornery about these things – part of being the easygoing one is that Lancelot more easily surrenders). At the same time, I will maintain forever that it is quite reasonable to want to be specific when in a city neither person knows all that well. So there.
6. Queuing, anytime, anywhere in China. If you don’t choose to find it funny that no one around you seems to understand the purpose and principle of lining up, you will very likely deck someone, and then you’ll end up in the police station as the foreigner who started an altercation over what is simply a cultural difference. This is one area of life in China in which you absolutely must adapt – otherwise you will simply wait forever, because there will never, ever be no one else in line. Basically, there is someone in front helping everyone at his or her leisure. Everyone else is in a terrible hurry. This means that waiting in a line is actually a contact sport. There is a little shoving, some careful maneuvering, snap assessments of other waiting customers’ personalities, and implementation of strategy. A personal favorite tactic is the feint, where you look to all the world like you are not paying attention, but then when someone else starts to make their move, snap to and cut them off at the pass. This can be accompanied by a triumphant look and an exclamation of, “Aha!” which, I assure you, is readily understood even if not easily translated. This took some time to learn. At first, when I was cut in front of in lines I suspected that I just wasn’t queuing convincingly – I failed to look like I wanted to reach the front. More recently, however, I’ve learned that I have to actively protect my place in line, or it will be taken from me.
Incidentally, the queuing problem also manifests itself in traffic, leading one to suspect that although they drive on the right in Taiwan and on the left in Hong Kong, in China they drive on whatever side is most convenient at the moment. This can be a bit disconcerting, however, and I’ve at times stopped dead on my bike to watch in horror at what, until the very last minute, has all the makings of a head-on collision.
A Final Comment on a Recurring Theme: Cows in Daily Life
So I was working through a stack of documents the other day, listening to an older Jay Chou album that I picked up at random one afternoon. There are a few songs on it I really like, one of which, “Rice Fields,” I couldn’t understand at all. Not a single word – well, frequently I can’t understand dear Jay when he sings, as it seems to be against the grain in the international world of R&B to enunciate – but this one had a sort of soaring, chanted chorus that I found rather intriguing. I got out the Chinese lyrics, and after about 10 minutes, was left thinking, “what the….” I ultimately went to the Fundamental Source From Which All Knowledge Flows, or Google, in search of English lyrics. (I could write a sonnet on the many uses of Google in daily life, and perhaps one of these days I will. It saved me on a research question the other day by spitting up the circa 1940 exchange rates for British pounds and Hong Kong dollars. In 30 seconds.). Anyway, I pulled up the lyrics and realized it’s not just me, the chorus of this song is, in fact, genuinely, objectively bizarre:
Hoi Ya E Ya, Oh, that Lu Wan
Na E Na Ya Hei wo~ Ah, my dear cows!
Hoi Ya E Ya, Oh, that Lu Wan
Na E Na Ya Hei wo~ Where did they run off to…
Bizarre, but fun. How much do you have to love a song that repeats, over and over, “ah, my dear cows”? How hard is it to take a song seriously as a “protect the environment from human destruction” plea when it stops periodically to say, “ah, my dear cows”? Questions for the ages, I guess. By the way, though, that is the new Official Theme Song of all future Hong Kong hiking excursions and cross-Wisconsin road-trips. Just so everyone knows.
Best to all (and doubly so to Lancelot, who is heavily imposed-upon in this installment).
Copyright 2005 by Meredith Oyen