So, are Chinese people boring, or what?

The photos are unedited images taken right near where I live in the early evening. The quality is the internet’s fault, not mine. Blame the internet.
SONY DSC
Despite the borderline prosecutable title, this post is addressing a serious point about how Chinese people and westerners interact. This is me using my prodigious lack of tact for the greater good. Quite simply, I used to think Chinese people were boring, then I realised that they aren’t. I’m sure that many Brits have made the first stage and not progressed to the second, so I’m going to stick my oar in and waggle it about.
SONY DSC
Going back to when I first arrived in China, years ago, I was struck by how people didn’t tell many jokes or try to be funny, or tell jokes that were funny, or have involved facial expressions or hobbies. Anyone who wants to argue is cordially invited to tell me why 90% of Chinese students at my university had no local friends and why I had a Chinese guy asked me if it’s true that British people are racist towards Chinese people. Or you can tell me who your favourite Chinese comedian is, or tell me why Chinatowns have always existed. We take it for granted, but Indian migrants have never felt the same compulsion to congregate like that. A bit of shared culture goes a long way, and unlike Chinese, English and Indian languages have a shared origin. My big point here is that Chinese people speaking English were boring. I didn’t understand Chinese at that point, so was in the dark.

SONY DSC
The Chinese language is so different from ours that it has no word for ‘the’ or ‘yes’ or the number ‘one million’ and also has no tenses or varying word endings whatsoever. Could you be funny in Chinese? I can only do it with very simple puns and word play, and more often slapstick. You know how if you need to explain a joke, it’s better just to give up? Translation has a more corrosive effect on a joke than explanation. Sometimes you’ll say “I can imagine that would’ve been very funny if I’d understood” like Dr Spok. Some Chinese jokes depend on words having the same tone, but a different syllable. Is that a pun? I don’t know what you’d call it. They can be very funny, but someone who uses them a lot in conversation is gonna sound sharp talking to Chinese people and be mute when they’re in the middle of some English pub banter.
SONY DSC
I’ve met lots of funny people here more recently as I’m able to communicate better, and people seem to be getting better at having fun as they get wealthier. It’s only just occurred to millionaires here to get yachts, and only ten years ago no one but foreigners was even buying hiking gear. Chinese people were a little mystified as to why you’d want to go and scramble around on rocks and sleep outside. They were too busy working and trying to get further out of the countryside. Supposedly people in Britain fell in love with the countryside off the back of landscape painters like Constable, and before that it was just seen as dirty and backwards. I’d believe that based on what you see here.
SONY DSC
People are doing all sorts of creative and cool stuff now. One guy was a lowly restaurant cook and he’d just ridden his bike (not motorbike) from Shanghai to Guangzhou. It took him a month. Respect! Other people I know have posted their bikes to a tropical island (Hainan) and then driven there and ridden a lap around the island, camping out.
SONY DSC
People also have a lot of humour and spendĀ  lot of time telling jokes and laughing and smiling. The sterotypical po-faced Chinese person does exist, but they are typically people who’ve grown up in a rough place or a harder time, when you couldn’t afford to clown around. People here often carry big weights around on their shoulders. Parents who need financial support, needing to buy a house so they can get married despite ever-increasing prices. It’s not easy. You don’t meet many people here who will make a fuss about not wanting to do something fun with their friends. Someone wants to go swimming? Let’ go. Someone wants to go to a movie? Okay, let’s go, and we’ll have fun. And they do. Put some music on? Okay, let’s do it. And no one will complain aboutĀ the choice of music. They just have fun. Some of my Chinese friends are always texting jokes to each other and forwarding emails that they think are funny. They often aren’t, but that’s universal, isn’t it?
SONY DSC
Last summer I went rafting out in Guangdong, and it was very good fun. Developers had built a mountain road (blasted out of the mountain side) more than ten miles long, just so that they could put in a visitors’ centre next to a river and charge people to white water raft down it. Boring? No. It was two people to a raft, and some parts of the trip down had almost two metre vertical drops. At a couple of points the stream was chanelled into a very narrow space to make the water faster, and one part even had a twenty metre long slide put in, made of concrete. It looked like the exit ramp from a multi-storey car park, except that it didn’t reach the bottom and you fell off the end. There’s added excitement to this because you don’t entirely trust things to be safe here, and the scenery was rainforest with some creepers and a lot of greenery. What more can you ask for than a potentially deadly raft-ride through a rainforest? We also had thunder and lightening and pouring rain for the later part of the run down, but it was 25c, so we kept warm and could just enjoy the experience. In the end, I thought it was great, and the local that shared the boat told me he hoped it’d be faster.
SONY DSC
Robert McNamara (US defense secretary during the Vietnam war) made a documentary called ‘The fog of war’, where he talked about lessons that he’d learned during his career. Number one was about undersdtanding your enemy. The US US didn’t want a communist Vietnam uniting with a communist China. The Vietnamese had history with China and were primarily concerned with independence from Chinese and French interference. I think he said that they interpreted the US as having the same colonial interest that France had. 58,000 Americans and a lot more Vietnamese died over that misunderstanding, and I think that as China becomes an ever-bigger player in the world, this issues of mutual bafflement is gonna come back. There are more than people are aware going on as we speak. Peace out, people.
SONY DSC

Advertisements

Chinese new year 2013: Exit the dragon

I’ve taken a shed-load of photos recently, and could do a batch on just about any topic, but it makes sense to share a few of the whole chinese new year period and tell people a little about it. It’s going to be picture-book intro.

The local name for chinese new year is the spring festival, which better captures the scale of the thing. It’s not just one night. It’s by far the biggest holiday of the year here. A significant of chunk of the country are migrant workers who’ve gone from small towns and cities to the likes of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu (Sichuan), and Chongqing, hundreds or even thousands of miles from home. The wealthy ones go home a couple of times a year, but the poorer ones only go once. Much of the big cities shut down as a couple of hundred million people get on a train or bus to go home for the first time in a year. Brits might sometimes not see their family at christmas. We see them often, so its not a massive deal. Can you imagine how big a thing it is if you only see them once a year? Nobody, not one single person, fails to go home for new year.

Image

Pretty soon the sky is lit up with fireworks. They don’t wait until midnight on new year’s eve. You hear and see them every night. The firecrackers they have here would need a firearm certificate in Britain.

ImageThis was a kid firing mini rockets, bless him.

ImagePretty soon you can’t move for bits of exploded fire crackers in the towns. It’s a bit like confetti and kinda beautiful.

And the countryside is no different.

ImageEvery (occupied) house has couplets either side of the door. I told my chinese pal that I couldn’t read them and he said he couldn’t either. It’s old skool chinese.

Image

 

Indoors the main thing that’s going on is eating. People are just stuffing their faces all day, to the point where I need to get out and climb a frickin mountain or go round taking photos at midnight to burn some calories. From the from the left here we have pickled ginger, pork skin, tofu stuffed with minced pork, goose, a local sweet thing, made from corn flour and fried, fish balls in soup (made from fresh meat straight off the carp). I think there was also something like fried trout, and some veggies, too. This is one of the simpler meals. Everybody wants to cook loads of food without wasting, so the ones that aren’t finished get reheated and more are added. A dozen or more dishes at one meal is common.

Image

 

This one was particularly interesting. It’s mulled wine, people! Except it’s rice wine, heated up with chopped ginger, goji berries, and red dates. Gotta love it. The world is THIS [pea sized] small.

ImageThere are all sorts of traditions about what people are meant to do, and they’re still going strong. One way or another if you go back you’re meant to visit everyone. That’s the basis. There’s also a lot of people giving money in red envelopes. It’s pocket money for the kids, or if it goes to your parents or older relatives it’s considerably more. I was warned to get enough cash for the whole period (and withdrew 500 quid)  because the ATMs empty. People are giving their parents a couple of grand, their grandparents a couple of hundred… …the list goes on. If you ever wondered why Chinese people are such good business people, that’s why. The financial pressures to earn are big. Couple that with the lack of a welfare state and it’s a wonder anyone doesn’t go mental.

ImageThere’s local tradition of flower markets at new year. I don’t know the details, but buying plants at new year makes sense however you look at it. Goldfish and terrapins are also hot commodities, for some reason.

Image

 

Other traditions include taking care of your ancestors. At certain times people are meant to go tomb sweeping. You can see at this little shrine that they have thermos flasks and oranges on the table. I guess they pour tea for their ancestors. This was inside a hakka minority roundhouse. We were invited in, no charge, and I’ll post more photos of it later. It’s essentially a whole clan or village living in one house. Every new son builds rooms for his relatives and the house gets bigger and bigger. I think this one was a couple of hundred years old.

Image

 

One thing to remember is that the spring festival is more or less the start of spring here. People have daffodil bulbs in pots inside their houses right now, flowering, and they seem to symbolise spring in much the same way as they do in Britain, only a month or more earlier. This is peach blossom.

Image

 

It’s not hard to see that spring is on its way.

But pretty soon everybody has to go back to the city to work again, and not many of them want to. Many cleaners and manual workers in Guangzhou are independent home owners in their home village, with a large network of friends. They don’t really want to be back on the bus going five hundred miles away to work. Maybe they have something in common with some of the foreigners out here, who got laid off and then came over.