Large Mammals Crossing: Jogging in Beijing

moose-crossingI know I need to lose weight. Everybody tells me this: My doctor, my wife, my colleagues at work, my neighbor, some old guy I saw at the park, a clerk in a store where I was buying a juice maker…everybody. I get it. I’m a large mammal in a country of mostly smaller mammals. But this is Beijing — free health advice comes standard. Most people just shake their heads and blame “Western food,” assuming that I live on a steady diet of McDonald’s cheeseburgers and beer. Not true. I eat a lot of Chinese food which I am told – repeatedly – is so much healthier than Western food. Maybe I’m missing something, but the health properties of fatty pork steeped in oil and sugar and then deep fried somehow elude me. Whatever. The situation is that I’m an ex-rugby player in need of shedding a few pounds. How to do this in Beijing?

First of all, I’m skipping the gym and hitting the streets. But jogging in Beijing requires a set of skills not necessary in other countries. The most important is the anaerobic workout you get holding your breath while sprinting past a) a public toilet; b) a city bus; c) a two-stroke nightmare of a cycle; d) all of the above. Then there is the critical issue of head position and foot placement. If you keep your head up and eyes forward, you risk all manner of slop seeping into your knock-off Nike trainers that you bought because the store said your feet were two sizes larger than “normal.” After losing a pair of shoes this way (don’t ask) I began jogging with my head down.

I plodded along — diligently scanning the ground ahead with an attentiveness usually reserved for bomber pilots and BASE jumpers – and was nearly killed by a guy scooting the wrong way down the sidewalk.

While Beijing has gone a little overkill in its preparation for the upcoming celebrations [read: upcoming circle jerk of jingoistic neighbor-bashing], I can’t complain about the traffic restrictions. I’m looking forward to jogging in relatively clean air with 50% less chance of getting mowed down by a mianzi-crazed motorist or speeding moped. Granted, I walk to work so my joy at these inconveniences is purely selfish.

Running in China is also something of a spectator sport. I try to go early in the morning to avoid the real crowds, but it’s never early enough. Our local park fills well before dawn with Oldsters-on-Parade and they treat the sweating fat guy in their midst with a mixture of humor, wonder, and the occasional suggestion that I am, in fact, too fat and should eat more Chinese food. I’ve found a way to make it work for me in a game I call “Oldster Slalom” – a necessity really, as my usual jogging path is always full of the strolling, chatting, shouting, tai chi-ing, line dancing, singing, bird walking, hackey-sacking, and meandering senior residents of our little neighborhood.

First of all: God bless ‘em. I think it is wonderful how active seniors are in China. But I’ve had a few near-misses when somebody would unexpectedly change course. I don’t want to even think about the patriotic lather on the Chinese Inter-web if somebody’s grandmother were taken out by a huffing-puffing embodiment of American gastric decadence.

Despite the clear and present danger I present to myself and others, it’s good exercise. Even in Beijing. I guess I’m born to run. Hopefully it won’t be the death of me.

Advice to New Wai: Things I wish I learned 13 years ago about life in China

Let’s face it: It’s not easy to live in China. These days even a well-known…less than critical observer of China like Daniel Bell is being kind of critical.  Lots of people — too many — are leaving. But you know what, you can take away my Internet, cancel Earth Day, and even limit the amount of oxygen I breathe (although in fairness, that might be getting better…), but I’m staying. I first came to Beijing in 2002 and here I am still.

That said, there’s a lot I wish I knew 13 years ago. This week I was asked to write some suggestions for a group of students visiting Beijing. It gave me the opportunity to jot down a few reflections on things learned, in most cases later than I should have but still…13 years is a long time and I hope I’ve accumulated at least some wisdom to go along with the steadily building accumulation of PM 2.5 material in my lungs.

There are a lot of people in China. No, seriously.

It’s the single defining fact of life for anybody who lives here, whether you were born in China or moved here from somewhere else. If you are an American, consider for a moment an alternate universe where the population of the USA was quintupled and then everybody was moved east of the Mississippi. A fierce competition for everything – a spot in school, a job, somebody to marry, a house, a seat on the subway, or that last dumpling – is a part of daily life in China.

What Americans feel is a “normal” amount of personal space and privacy is considered a luxury beyond the reckoning of most people who live here. Sometimes people can seem a little in a hurry or a little pushy. Perhaps you’ll see somebody cutting in line. At times like this it’s important to keep perspective: You’ve just joined the world’s longest running and most competitive game of musical chairs.

Basically, for 5000 years, there were two guys: The one who waited patiently in line and the guy who got what he needed to feed his family. Even though China is developing rapidly, old habits die hard.

People will have made assumptions about you as a foreigner (especially an American) before you even can say “Ni Hao.”

In fact, if you do say “Ni hao” then you’ve already challenged one basic assumption held by many people in China: That the Chinese language is too difficult for foreigners to master or understand.

Nobody likes to be a stereotype, but it happens. Want to know what many Chinese think about us? They think Americans are pushy, entitled, aggressive, arrogant and tend to throw tantrums when things are just the way they want it (or like it is “back home”).

To put it another way: It’s as if when we go through passport control at the Beijing airport, the immigration officer changes all of our last names to “Kardashian.”

Now it’s not true that all Americans act like Kim and Khloe when they go abroad, and it’s not fair that many people in China paint all foreigners/Americans with the same brush, but hey…there have been just enough pushy, entitled, aggressive, arrogant foreigners who have traveled to China over the years to keep the myth alive.

We can whine about the unfairness of it all, or we can see this as an opportunity to fight the stereotype and rise above the cliché. China is one of the friendliest places in the world and, as my mother once said, a little bit of sugar goes a long way. Remember that the minute we do get angry, or pout, or start complaining about how things here aren’t like they are “back home” all we are doing is feeding the beast.

So I’ve learned that it’s always best to be a little too humble, a little too nice, a little too polite…and to smile a lot. When I do this, I can see minds change and old attitudes fall away as people start to question the stereotype…more importantly, the nicer I am, the easier my life becomes.

The thing is that in China, people generally won’t go out of the way to help you (even people we think “should” like waitresses, taxi drivers, or hotel staff) unless they like you. It can take a few smiles and some humility to get them to forget their prejudices and figure out how nice you are. Once that happens, however, you’ll find out that your new friend will go out of their way to help you.

People talk a lot about the power of guanxi (relationships) in China, especially in the context of business. But guanxi is not only signing a multi-million deal with an old school buddy, it’s a way of life. Every encounter you have in China – from a new professional contact to the waitress who brings you your morning dumplings – is a moment to build a connection and make a relationship. With each connection you make, your life in China gets a little bit better and a whole lot easier.

Be careful not to mistake having 40 conversations with having the same conversation 40 times.

I hear it all the time: “I learn more hanging out at clubs than I do in Chinese class.” No, you really don’t. You become very good at introducing yourself, saying where you are from, and making the same stupid joke (“Do you like 涮洋肉?” which you use every time somebody points out you sweat a lot when you dance.) If you find yourself having the same conversation over and over again, it’s time to branch out. Don’t be afraid to open your mouth, bring the Zhongwen, and then epically fail. If you’re not failing — and I mean catastrophic failure of mindbending embarrassment — on a regular basis, you’re not trying hard enough. I’ve lived here a long time and I have at least one complete breakdown in my Hanyu communication a day. But I try not to make the same mistake twice.

 

Be patient. It’s on the list.

Everyone is talking about how China is a rising economic and global power. (In fact, in a recent poll, 44% of Americans thought – incorrectly — that China is the world’s largest economic power.) On the other hand, when you divide China’s economy by 1.4 billion, you get a very different number: 77. Which is where China sits in the global rankings of countries by nominal per capita GDP, right between Bulgaria and Botswana.

This is not to take anything away from China and it’s incredible trajectory over the past four decades. After all, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that China in 1978 (the eve of the Reform and Opening Era) made today’s North Korea seem like Dubai. In much less than a single lifetime, China’s development has completely transformed its economy and lifted millions out of poverty.

Nevertheless, today in Beijing and Shanghai where we zip past the Bentley dealership to grab a Starbucks before we head out to a high-end duck restaurant or maybe a rooftop tapas bar, it can be hard to remember that China still has a long way to go. More importantly: People in China are well aware that the country still has a long way to go to catch up with the developed economies of the world. That’s why it’s important for those of us from other countries – and particular those of us who were lucky enough to grow up in a developed economy – to be aware of how criticism or complaints about China might sound to people who live here.

China still has many problems…but these are problems which, for the most part, are already on the “To Do List.” Too often, foreigners (and I’ve done this too, guilty as charged) focus on what China hasn’t done, what it hasn’t figured out, what it still needs to fix rather than on the incredible strides made in what, in world historical terms, is an infinitesimally short amount of time.

It’s easy to understand why many people in China get frustrated when it seems like all the world focuses on is China’s problems, as if people in China weren’t already keenly aware of those problems already. As the author Peter Hessler recently put it: “Why do foreign correspondents [in China] only write about the bridge that collapses and not the thousands of bridges that don’t?”

This isn’t to say that China doesn’t have serious problems. It does. Bridges do collapse. So do schools sometimes. These are real tragedies that deserve our attention. But here is a list of things that do not qualify as a tragedy:

  • The waitress can’t speak English.
  • The public bathrooms smell funny.
  • People stare at me.
  • The farmer’s kid who just moved to Beijing doesn’t know who to make a proper margarita.
  • The streets are dirty.
  • People spit. In public.
  • That guy cut in line.

It’s only natural – a well-documented sign of culture shock actually – that we compare our new environment, usually unfavorably, with what we left behind. But remember that despite all of the problems in China, people here are as proud of their home as we would be.

It’s okay to think critically, but before we complain or criticize let’s consider how our criticisms might be understood by our new Chinese friends.

KEYS TO SURVIVAL: Patience, Sense of Humor, Perspective, Sense of Humor, Understanding, Sense of Humor Sense a theme?

Of all the keys to surviving in China the most important is a sense of humor. China can be a funny place. Whether it’s for 3 weeks or 13 years, every day in China you will walk out your door and see something that day you have never seen before. Usually something that makes you say: “In any other country, that would seem strange…”

Also, China finds us funny. Or at least if finds me funny. I have come to accept that I’m a source of constant mirth and amusement for my Chinese friends, family and neighbors…and that’s BEFORE I open my mouth to speak my version of Chinese.Here’s the thing: If you can’t laugh at yourself and the mistakes you make and the weird situations you find yourself in during your China experience then this can be a rough place.

Who doesn’t succeed in China? It’s the dude who takes himself WAY too seriously. The person who thinks people are constantly disrespecting them. The guy who can’t find the funny when things don’t go their way. It’s the person born with an indignation circuit which fires at every slight – perceived or real, because the truth is…China can give you a lot to be indignant about.

I’ve met people who have an indignation circuit that fired at everything. Every injustice. Every outrage. Every trivial indignity. And the result is that they – and their circuit – burned out completely and they bailed, or they stayed and tried to drink the pain away in a Sanlitun speakeasy.

Here’s an important lesson that I wish I learned sooner: If I walk out my door in the morning and I run into somebody who JUST. DOESN’T. GET. IT. Well that’s sad but then again there are dicks in every country. If at the end of the day all I’ve encountered are people who JUST. DON’T. GET. IT. Well…then it’s time to realize that I might be the dick who doesn’t get it and I am need of an attitude adjustment.

Or to summarize even more briefly…the basic rule of getting along in any foreign culture: Don’t be a dick.

China is a pretty safe place.

It’s one of the few positive things about living in an authoritarian one-party state run by guys so paranoid they make your neighborhood meth head look like a picture of Zen calm.

That said, it’s important to use common sense.

At night, go out and come home as a group. If you’re getting ready to leave and there’s one person in your group who wants to stay and hang out by himself or herself with their new best friends “Elder Brother Wang” and “Uncle Li,” put them in a hammer lock and get them in a cab.Similarly, no matter how annoying your friend is at the bar and how she won’t shut up about her boyfriend or her ex-boyfriend, do not just flag a cab, hand the driver the hotel card, deposit her in the back seat, and wish them both a good night. Stick together and watch out for each other.

Why I’m Here…

 

China can be a challenging place to live and visit. But it’s also one of the warmest, friendliest places I’ve ever been. You can go from “just met” to “best friends for life” in a single conversation, and once you’ve made a friend, Heaven and Earth will be moved to help you when you need it. Once we start accepting China for what it is rather than what it’s not or what we wish it would be, that’s when we realize what an amazing opportunity we have to engage with one of the world’s most dynamic and exciting countries.  I was trained as a historian, and in history there are certain moments which intersect with certain places to create eras. Think: Victorian London, 1920s Paris, 1950s New York. Well, that moment and that place is right now and in China and I want to be a witness. Think about it: Where else could a lover of history watch the kind of historical change that took decades in the rest of the world happen in just a few years and right before his very eyes?

China may not be the easiest place to live, and the Internet still sucks, but there’s nowhere I’d rather be.

Kind of Online in the PRC: The New Normal?

This year, I bought a MacBook Air. I love it, which is good because I’m pretty sure I paid more for my new computer than I did for my first car. The problem is that buying a fancy new computin’ device and then hooking it up to the Chinese Internet is like buying a Ferrari if you live in a town with only cobblestone streets.

Over the last few months, as has been widely reported, the Chinese government has tightened its control over the Internet. This process has included completely cutting off access to Google services, disrupting  popular VPN providers, and generally being dickish about the whole idea of a global Internet.

Frankly, I’m not sure how newsworthy this is. It certainly is worse than it was before, but it’s all a matter of degree…using the Internet in China has been a horrible experience for years.

I cannot count the number of times I’ve been in a place like Bali or a remote Thai island and marveled — positively did dances of joy and celebration — at the speed and reliability of the Internet there.

Think about that. If I were an Internet entrepreneur or investor in China, I’m not sure I’d want to hear about how Thailand and Indonesia — not exactly known as tech hotspots — offered superior connectivity to the global web.

For anybody — both local and laowai — who still thinks this is a great business environment, or that China has a bright future as a research hub or intellectual incubator, I would strongly suggest spending 30 minutes trying to do a few routine business tasks that involve accessing Internet sites not based in China.

I choose to live here, and there are many positive reasons why that is. China is an amazing place. It’s an incredibly safe country, and is, after a fashion, not a bad place to live and work. But it’s frustrating when what should be a five-minute task takes me twenty minutes and reconfiguring my VPN three times just to check it off my to-do list.

As the government moves from cracking down on social media to cutting off access to staples of global business communication and productivity, will people in China finally start to notice?

The old trope is that the government could always shut down Facebook or YouTube or Twitter or Google’s search engine because there were popular local alternatives. The fact that foreign websites loaded slowly didn’t matter to most Chinese Internet users. Why? Because they didn’t need to rely on overseas sites for those things which Internet users care about most: Entertainment, music, social media, shopping, and gaming.

Business though…that’s a bit different, and people everywhere tend to get cranky when you start messing with their livelihood.  Or their kid’s chance at getting into a university overseas.

A few years ago, I compared the CCP to a jealous stalker boyfriend. His girlfriend really loves him, because he has a lot of good qualities, but despite this he can’t (or won’t) believe that she’s really into him. In his twisted and delusional mind, he cooks up paranoid fantasies of his lovely and innocent girl spending her free time in joyful coitus with some or all of the Seattle Seahawks.

So jealous stalker boyfriend begins eavesdropping when she’s on the phone, asking questions about who she’s talking to and where she’s been, telling her she can’t hang out with certain friends, and insisting she call him every ten minutes so he can “be sure she’s okay.”

But after a while that’s not enough, because that’s how crazy works. Soon he’s hacking her emails, and checking her phone when she’s in the shower, and following her when she’s with her friends and…

You get the idea. No matter how much this girl loved him to begin with, she’s going to get creeped out.

The Chinese government, especially of late, has done a better than average job of convincing people in China that their interests are in pretty close alignment with those of the Party. But as control of information and technology becomes more obvious and intrusive, I wonder if Internet users in China will find this new-found interest in their online habits “lovingly protective” or “stalker creepy.” Because truth be told, there are not a lot of people willing to commit to a long-term relationship with creepy.

Beware of Dog!

“When I awoke the Dire Wolf/Six hundred pounds of sin
Was grinnin’ at my window/All I said was “come on in”
Don’t murder me/I beg of you don’t murder me
Please don’t murder me!”  – Robert Hunter

One bitter November evening, the management office of our apartment complex in Beijing pulled a half-frozen and fully-starving puppy out from one of the rubbish bins. It was an ugly thing, as if Seth Brundle had tested his device by tossing in a bat, a squirrel, and a baby harp seal and then throwing the switch.

Her mouth was so crooked it looked as if somebody had stood ten feet away and threw a fistful of teeth in the general direction of her face. 

But the puppy needed a home and the management office knew we were suckers.

Two years later we have a dog. We soon found out that not only was she ugly, but stupid. I would say she’s as dumb as a rock but I would hate to presume about rocks. 

The dog is also gassy. She perpetually smells like old soup.  I’m starting to worry that the next fart will have the Chinese government swooping in to plant a flag in her butt and declare her colon “Inalienable Chinese territory with concomitant mineral rights.”  

Nevertheless, she is sort of cute — in an ugly, stupid, and malodorous way — and despite her many flaws, you wouldn’t think of her as a menace to society or really to a menace to anything larger than a caterpillar.  

My neighbors disagree. 

I have seen grown women (and even a few men) throw themselves against the side of the elevator in terror when they realized they are being hoisted aloft in a confined space with…well, my dog Snickers. 

Menace to society.

Menace to society.

Walking her down the street and watching people recoil in absolute terror, you’d think I was unleashing a dire wolf rather than a 10-pound mutt who just three weeks ago figured out that the thing which follows her around everywhere  was her tail.  

There are many theories as to why people in Beijing are terrified of dogs. The Beijinger earlier this month posited a few of their own ranging from the prevalence of rabies in China to the fact that many Chinese never grew up with pets. Both of these make sense for older residents, but parents — at least in my neighborhood — seem intent on passing their fears on to the next generation.  

Two nights ago I was taking Snickers out to the only square meter  in the entire city of Beijing where she feels comfortable evacuating her bowels. On our way, we passed a woman and her ‘tween daughter.  Since it was dark, mom had apparently not spotted black-and-brown Snickers until it was too late and my little dog had already approached within 10 meters of this woman’s precious offspring.  The mother began screaming and yelling at her daughter to get behind her.  At first I was alarmed — until I realized she was screaming about  the existential threat to her daughter that was my dog, Snickers.  

Mind you, I’ve seen people in my complex roll out into traffic without so much as a glance in either direction and their children balanced on the handlebars, but I digress…

I wish I could say that this woman screaming was an isolated incident but it happens with some regularity.  For whatever reason, a shocking number of people are terrified, actually overcome with fear, by Snickers.

Frankly, I think in the dim recesses of her pea-sized brain, the dog is secretly happy. “Yeah, that’s me. Ten pounds of Bad Ass.”  I can’t wait until the day comes when we return home to New Hampshire and our dog encounters a moose.  My prediction is that she’ll poop twice and then die. 

Nevertheless, for now we live in Beijing. She’s registered, not too big, refuses to be used as a tool of Western propaganda, and is kept on a leash when out in the civilization. I guess that means she’s street legal…but apparently still dangerous.  

 

On cultural hybridity, ambassadors, and other low hanging fruit

Last week, an op-ed published by the China News Service referred to outgoing US Ambassador Gary Locke as a “banana.” It was, I suspect, meant to be satirical, and was a crude take-off on a famous essay written by Mao Zedong to celebrate the departure of another US ambassador, John Leighton Stuart.

The article was in bad taste and it brimmed with the kind of chickenshit pettiness that characterizes the more strident wings of the Chinese state media.

The term “banana” is an offensive term, especially when directed at an US Ambassador, but I’m not going to dwell on the epithet. I’m not Asian. I’ve never been called that. In fact, I’ve never been on the receiving end of any racist epithet.

As Mike Wilbon said on PTI last week when discussing the NFL’s decision to ban another provocative epithet from the football playing field, “Tony Kornheiser is my good friend of 35 years but he doesn’t get a vote in this.”

I’ll let others better qualified than I discuss the nature of that particular term.

But crude or not, the use of the term was just the most glaring example of how the writer of this essay completely fails to grasp a concept central to Chinese history: Cultural hybridity.

What somebody looks like, their DNA, their genotype, is of course irrelevant to somebody’s cultural make-up.

“Ethnicity,” “Race,” “Culture,” are all shifting and unstable ideas…except in China. Here ethnicity, race, culture are fixed constants. Hence, Xinjiang has always been “Chinese.” History books speak of a “Han” race which dates back millennia. Or, as in the case of Ambassador Locke, if you look Chinese, you must be—at heart—Chinese.

As Kaiser Kuo wrote as part of an excellent and insightful discussion on the subject at China File:

The expectation that anyone with a Chinese phenotype will have a “Chinese heart” to match, even at multiple generations of remove, is widespread in Chinese society. The plasticity of identity in multiethnic societies—that what you “owe” the race or the old country as, say, an American is entirely up to you—is still a fairly alien concept for most Chinese. We see this at work in the way Chinese law enforcement treats naturalized Chinese with U.S., Canadian, or Australian citizenship.

But looked at another way, Chinese history is filled with cultural hybrids and liminal figures. In his 2012 book Restless Empire: China and the World since 1750, Norwegian historian Od Arne Westad argues that cultural hybrids, those figures with the ability to operate in both East and West, were central to the development of a modern China.

Certainly, it is hard to imagine recent Chinese history without the likes of Sun Yat-sen (born in Guangdong, educated in Hawaii), Hu Shi (educated in the United States), or Chen Duxiu (educated in Japan). Overseas Chinese communities  made the first sizable private investments in developing China’s industrial and commercial sector. Many of the same overseas merchants, who often became wealthy despite native mistrust and hostility toward the Chinese diaspora in places like Indonesia, Malaya, and California, funded Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary activities.

Then there is Robert Hart, who was the head of the Maritime Customs Bureau for the Qing Empire for nearly a half-century beginning in 1863. Born in Northern Ireland, a place not without its own tricky terrain of identity, Hart operated a hybrid organization with both foreign and Chinese staff, often acting against the interests of his fellow foreign nationals in his service to the dynasty.*

Even those foreign nationals angry at Hart for having ‘gone native’ were often at a loss as to their own identity. British historian Robert Bickers and others have written about the “Shanghailanders” of the 19th century who saw their community as something separate from their home nations, all the while maintaining their superiority distinctiveness regarding the local “Shanghainese.”

Perhaps the greatest cultural hybrids were the Manchus (Yes, I can find a way to work the Manchus into just about any argument). The early Manchu rulers grafted foreign notions of Central Asian empire onto a Chinese state and in so doing were able to expand that state into something much larger than any previous “Chinese” Empire.  They did so as well without losing their own identity, even as markers of that identity gradually gave way to local ways of living.

Even today, cultural hybrids fill important roles in China’s academic, business, and artistic worlds. There are Chinese educated abroad. ABCs “returning” to a place they’ve never been. White dudes from NH teaching in a Chinese university. African migrants seeking a place to settle down.

There was a recent video celebrating Beijinger’s ability to be “Happy” even when having to take slow, shallow breaths under a polluted sky. What struck me was how diverse Beijing appeared in the video. Obviously, Chinese still outnumber foreigners, but what do those terms even mean? If identity isn’t fixed, isn’t it possible we all exist on some kind of sliding scale of hybridity?

And yet, as the op-ed crudely lampooning Ambassador Locke shows, and Kaiser alludes to, hybridity is also something which is still misunderstood and feared. 汉奸 hanjian (“race traitor”) is a common epithet used against Chinese who take a nuanced stand in regards to Chinese government policy, those Chinese who marry or date outside their race, or anybody who fails to live up to the most calcified idea of what it means to be “Chinese.”

In the same post above, Kaiser makes the fair point that foreigners are not immune from this. The vitriol given to Mark “Da Shan” Roswell for appearing too cozy with the Chinese establishment is but one example of a modern-day Robert Hart.

Gary Locke was an excellent ambassador for the United States. He was also an excellent example of somebody who, in a global world, showing what it means to transcend narrow national identities. Some are searching for roots a world away from where they are born born, some are searching for homes far away from our roots.

Those who cling to narrow and fixed notions of identity often do so for their own narrow reasons.  Liminal figures who have always been at the center of momentous change. Maybe that’s why repressive regimes seem so paranoid about those who don’t fit in any  neat little box of identity.

————

*Although it should be noted that Hart himself never quite got over his multiple identity crises. He ditched his Chinese mistress and their children in favor of a “proper” British wife midway through his career. Eventually, one of his Anglo-Chinese children ended up suing him.