Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Travelling in Western China and Chengdu

This post is just about one minor incident while in Chengdu. For more on travelling in China, see my website.

There are too many good things to say about my recent experience travelling in Western China. Chengdu itself is a hot pot - full of mist, spice, and you never know what you gon' get. If you do go to Chengdu and crave some good American food, hit up Pete's Tex Mex (address can be found on Google,  but it's 彼得西餐饭馆,科华路)and give it the brownie test. The have on the menu two brownies, one's called brownie sundae and one's called Texas Brownie. The former is 15 kuai, the latter is 18. We ordered two brownie sundaes, and they charged us for two Texas Brownies. When we pointed it out, the waitress said "But I brought you a Texas Brownie, you should pay for it" (the customer is rarely right in China). But we stood our ground and after a minute or two of feigned embarassment, the waitress finally fixed the price.

This "brownie incident," it turns out, has also happened to another friend who visited Pete's in the past. And why not? Waitresses don't get tips in China, so to charge a foreigner and extra few bucks and pocket the money, at the end of the day, can go a long way for her. Especially if the foreigner cannot read the bill in Chinese.

Props to Pete's food. Try the brownie test. And laowais, beware of this happening to you anywhere. Always read your 买单s.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

中国特色 and varying quality in Chinese scholarship

I am a Chinese graduate school student, but Chinese is not my native language. So what would take me ten minutes to read in English will take about an hour to read in Chinese. I am not at all complaining – I of course like the task, otherwise I wouldn't be here. However, it is a real downer to have drudged through three hours of an article about China’s polluted Qinhuai River and realize that nothing was actually said. This thirty-pager concluded with the statement, “It is clear that only when nation, market, and society establish a mutually effecting cooperation method can we then finally realize the solution to environmental protection.” Basic translation: When a country is in working order, things can get done.

 I’ll save myself the trouble of translating and tell you that the context is equally as cloudy. In class, our professor, God bless his twice culturally re-educated soul, extolled the writer as one of Nanjing University’s finest – though it is noteworthy here that he used the term “famous” to qualify him. How well known you are (or how much “face” you have) is a common qualifier in China.

One of the author’s key phrases (literally, it was listed in the box in the article’s beginning that says “key phrases”) was “中国特色,” “Chinese characteristics.” This phrase was coined by the Chinese government to explain why China is not like the West. In an attempt to save face and highlight the omnipresent assumption on the Chinese side that foreigners “just don’t understand China,” this phrase has been a defensive shield as much as an intellectual hindrance. China’s economy, considered by most outsiders to be laissez-faire at its laissez-fairest, is dubbed “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” (one visiting lecturer added that by the same token, the Obama administration has made America into a socialist country with capitalist characteristics).

中国特色 means “China is this way because China is China” – further simplified (since Mao instituted linguistic simplification decades ago), “things are they way they are because that’s just why they are” and even further simplified, “Just don’t ask, you won’t understand.” One can hopefully understand why any article that uses the term 中国特色 is one whose legitimacy I am going to doubt. One professor doubled-up laughing when one student tried to use the phrase in the thesis statement of a paper, even switching into English to be sure we understood that 中国特色was, ahem, "bullshit."  (Though that is not to say that I think this catchphrase is completely without reason 完全没道理, which is something I can explain in a later post).

 My other issue with Chinese scholarship is that it tends to lack clear solutions to problems. Scholars have no trouble pointing out issues and professing that they must be solved by increased attention/cooperation/planning/whatever. However, rarely have I seen a succinct suggestion as to how to fix these issues. Perhaps to do so would be risking one's own well-being; censorship in China is strong as ever, and publishing a suggestion about how to improve society could be construed as a rabble-rousing call to march on Beijing (the government's paranoia of 1989 has never worn off). The question is, how can intellectual growth be fostered in such an environment? The answer is made manifest by my Chinese classmates who are applying to pursue Ph.D's - not in mainland China.

I have heard that in order to be hired as a professor in China, one must publish a minimum of x number of articles. I cannot cite this fact; it is something I picked up in the student lounge late one night during midterms. However, if this is true, and if Ph.D candidates celebrate plagiarism as much as undergraduates and graduate students do in China, then I’m going to have to develop another skill during my time here: finding the gem amongst smoke and mirrors.

First Post: My Blog's Intention

I really dislike laowai blogs. Laowai is a Chinese term that means "foreigner" - a term not just used by Chinese, but by any self-respecting foreigner who lives in the PRC (People's Republic of China). It is a term that, when I hear it uttered from a construction worker or other passerby as I walk down the street, it rings in my ear and lisences an immediate "laowai" retort. Westerners are trained to feel that any label is inherently offensive, as it implies a certain amount of assumptions about someone based on her or his appearances. If you ask a Chinese person, however, they will insist that laowai is an endearing term - literally, it means "Ol' Foreigny." I will not delve deeper into the anthropological and psychological implications of the use of a single term to describe a group of people (or rather, a non-group of people; that is, everyone who is not Chinese-looking), because as I said, I dislike laowai blogs.

Laowai blogs are ceaselessly self-promoting. The laowai blogger will surreptitiously hint at his Chinese linguistic powers; he will analyze why China, in a word, is not America; he has the money to dine and drink at high-end bars, but those events never make the blog. Instead, he expounds on the occasional ground-breaking (and probably one-sided) conversation with a local taxi driver concerning China's cultural superiority over The West. Bloggers have the power that was never granted to previous generations of writers and commentators; anonymity of experience, selection of detail, regurgitation of uncertified knowledge, and image-sculpting priveleges comparable to those of Donatello (I say privelege as opposed to abilites; you will surely read more about this conflict later).

So let me rephrase: I dislike typical laowai blogs. In considering the projection of my future blogging, I suppose I too cannot help but tread on these trite laowai-caricature follies; there exist limitations. Most prominently, I cannot discuss my experience in China without obligingly weaving in China's current quandary of Westernization vs. Sinocization (modernization is not debatable - China is heading, full-speed, into blind modernization. Let us hope Edward Smith is never appointed Chairman). I will avoid topics that can be found in any given laowai blog, and avoid scooping from the dredge of uncited knowledge. I guess you could say this blog is an extension of my graduate studies, aimed at other laowai's with an academic interest in China.