Recently in China Category

Stop sitting on the floor!

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I just saw a commercial on the local Liangshan TV channel that literally made my jaw drop. The overly dramatic announcer proclaims: 一个小板凳,一个大工程 "One Little Stool, One Big Project". I can't find the commercial itself, but here's the first google hit for "凉山 一个小板凳".

News report on the Big Stool Project

Apparently, distributing free stools to Nuosu (Yi) people will stop their backwards practice (陋习) of sitting <gasp> on the floor(!), and move them closer to being healthy (健康) and civilized (文明) people.

If they want to get rid of backwards practices, how about getting people to (1) stop burning their trash, and (2) stop throwing the rest of their trash on the ground (including plastic, batteries, etc.)?

Tibetan chopstick fonts

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In China it seems de rigueur to use Tibetan-looking fontified Chinese characters to make posters and book titles, etc., about things related to Tibet. I've always found this practice to be vaguely offensive, perhaps because of the "chopstick" font that you see sometimes on Chinese restaurant menus. (You know, the kind that's supposed to be vaguely reminiscent of brush strokes in Chinese characters, but if you ever opened your own Chinese restaurant you would only ever use such a font in an ironic sense.)

Take, for example, this monstrosity on a book cover (a travel book about Tibet, being sold at a Walmart in Kunming). For those who don't know Chinese, or can't recognize the mangled characters, it's supposed to say 西藏 'Tibet', in that horrible "Tibetan" font. The second character is especially bad: it's made up of various disembodied bits of Tibetan letters rotated in all sorts of awkward angles. Frankly, it's butt-ugly, and has none of the aesthetic of actual Tibetan script.

Perhaps why this disturbs me is that you typically never see actual Tibetan script in China unless it's meant for Tibetans to read. A book about Tibet will talk about all the pretty tourist places you can visit, and how the happy Tibetans just love drinking their butter tea, but will say next to nothing about actually understanding Tibetan history, culture, or language. This book, where the cover uses (badly-done) faux Tibetan script contains zero examples of actual Tibetan script.

I suppose it's all part of the whole Chinese cultural superiority complex. Remember, you're only counted as literate in China if you're literate in the Chinese script. You only "have culture" (有文化) if you've been educated—in Chinese. Places have names, but their "real" name is the one written in Chinese characters. Buy a map in China and all the place names in Vietnam will be in Chinese characters (good luck actually using it in Vietnam). The Korean girl who won the Olympics? Her name's not Kim, it's Jin.

But hey, if it doesn't conform to the phonotactic constraints of Mandarin, it's not real, right?

January 25. Getting off the train at Xichang (西昌) at 5am, I see a white girl. WTF? So I'm all, hey, where are you from? She says in Mandarin, Gélìxī. I think to myself, is that even a country? She must have read my mind, since the next thing she said was "it's in Europe," in Chinese. Oh, ok. I told her I was from San Francisco, also in Chinese, assuming it was her language of choice. She had a sort of blank look on her face, but it was 5am, so I let it go. In retrospect, I think I could have told her I was from the moon and she wouldn't have batted an eye.

I continued the conversation in Mandarin. Do you come here often? I asked. "I LIVE in Xichang," she replied, rather defensively. So then I left her alone, and thought nothing more of it, other than to wonder what foreigners living in Xichang might be doing.

March 9. I get to the bus station and have to go to the bathroom, so I go into the waiting hall. On the wall is a huge map of all the tourist destination in Liangshan. As I am taking in the map, lo and behold, who should come in but the girl from Gélìxī, wherever that is. She's wearing a red bicycle helmet, and she takes out her digital camera and snaps a photo of the map. She runs over to the other end of the hall and takes some photos of the screen showing upcoming bus departure times. She looks very serious and very busy, so I'm afraid to interrupt her. Then she leaves and rides away on her bike.

Who is that girl???

March 24. I am riding a bus along Hangtian Avenue, Section 1, on the way to visit a friend at Xichang College (north campus). I look out the window, and lo and behold, who should be riding along on a bicycle next to the bus but that girl from Gélìxī! But since I was on a bus and she was on a bike, I couldn't very well stop and have a conversation with her. I couldn't very well ask her what she was doing in Xichang, or if when she said Gélìxī she really meant Greece, and isn't that funny but the Chinese word for Greece is actually Xīlà. And I couldn't very well tell her that I was impressed that she was biking everywhere, and by the way I'm a card-carrying member of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. I couldn't do any of those things. So I just sat on the bus helplessly while we passed her going twice her speed.

White girl in Xichang, who are you? The three times I've been to Xichang this year, why has fate had us cross paths -- every time -- only to rip us cruelly apart?

White girl in Xichang, if you see this... I really want to know what you're doing in Xichang! And no, I'm not some random mainland dude trying to 攀關係, and I have the passport to prove it! Fate, spurn me no longer!

New Sun Baiyun Airport

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Baiyun airport is the worst airport ever. To get to the bathroom you have to navigate through the designated smoking area, and the bathroom itself is even smokier. I literally had to run out of there after having barely stepped in. I spent maybe 15 seconds in the smoking area/bathroom (they were really one and the same) and half an hour later I still smell like smoke.

But wait, that's not all! To even get to the bathroom, you have to jump over multiple lines of people waiting at their gates for their flight, and even if you manage to avoid all that, at YOUR OWN GATE there are people clogging the gate entrance waiting for their OTHER flight which happens to leave from the same place.

People sometimes wonder about my disdain for China. Well, what's not to dislike about a country where you can't even go to THE BATHROOM at the friggin AIRPORT?!! I mean this isn't Joe-the-plumber hard-seat train facilities, this is the airport in the city that's refacing ("Don't replace, reface!") Beijing-style in anticipation of the 2010 Pan-Asian games. "New" Baiyun Airport my a$$.

handy chart for Yi script

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The Yi (Nuosu) script is crazy! I've been trying to learn Nuosu, and have made a handy reference chart (inspired by the jiǎnzhì 简志, which has a foldout chart in the back).

Some of the characters are adapted from Chinese. See, e.g., cyp 'one', nyip 'two', suo 'three', ly 'four, fut 'six'. The characters have been turned 90 degrees clockwise since their inception. So unturn it in your mind, and you'll see the resemblance.

By the way, the -t and -p are tone marks: -t is high tone, -p is low tone (and -x is rising).

PDF and html versions below:




One of the things that always bothers me about mainland China are the weird usages of certain words. Take 文化 'culture', for instance. If someone here says that someone "has culture" (有文化), what they really mean is that they've been educated. Having taken, e.g., Anthro CIV my freshman year, this is totally bizarre to me. Everyone has culture (note that the Chinese word 文化 has the anthropological meaning as well); just because it's different doesn't mean it's not as good as yours. But that seems to be exactly the implication here: if you haven't received a proper education in Chinese, you don't really have culture.

I noticed a similar thing with 识字 'literate' when my language consultant said that his father was illiterate (不识字). I was confused---didn't his father read Tibetan? But what he meant was that his father couldn't read Chinese characters.

Then there are all sorts of weird naming conventions, like "Culture Road" 文化路, "Liberation Road" 解放路, "Unity Road" 团结路, and things like "People's Road" (人民路) and "People's Park" (人民公园). I guess they all show how cultured, liberated, and unified the "people" are now.

But perhaps the most bizarre is 文明 'civilized', which you see everywhere in mainland China. There's apparently a great push there for people to be more "civilized". At urinals there are signs that say 向前一小步 文明一大步 "Step a little more forward, be a lot more civilized". I can't decide if this is insulting (i.e., you're so backwards that you don't even know how to use a urinal) or false security (look at how civilized I am, I don't drip all over the floor when I pee).

Pictured above is a "Safe, Civilized Building". In case there's any doubt, it's been posted four times.


Here's another example, an effort to have tourism be more civilized. My favorite part is where it tells you, "Don't force foreign tourists to take photos." Here's the complete English translation (copied verbatim from the sign) for your enjoyment:

In order to build a civilized and harmonious tour environment and to improve the moral standards of both tourists and our citizens, please abide the following rules.

  1. Please keep the environment clean. Don't spit. Don't spit the chewing gum. No littering. No smoking except in the designated area.

  2. Please follow the public order. Keep silent. Don't jump the queue. Please keep gateways clear. Please don not talk loudly in public places.

  3. Please protect the ecological environment. Don't step on the grassland. Don't pick flowers or fruits. Don't chase or beat animal. Don't give animal any food without permit when you are in the zoo.

  4. Protect the historical relics and sites. Don't paint or carve on the historical relics. Don't climb up the historical relics. No photos without permit.

  5. Value the public facilities. Don't dirty or destroy any installment in the hotel. Don't destroy the public facilities. Do not be out for small advantages. Save water and electricity. Don't waste food.

  6. Respect other people's rights. Don't force foreign tourists to take photos. Don't force other people to buy or sell something. Do not occupy public facilities for a long time. Respect people in the service sector. Respect religious customs of different nationalities.

  7. To be polite. Wear clean and proper clothes. Do not wear clothes exposing the neck or shoulders in public places. Take care of the elderly, children, the sick and the handicapped. Do not utter dirty words.

  8. Advocate a happy and healthy way of life. Resist superstition. Avoid pornography, gambling and drug.

dollar bills vs. dollar coins

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Anticipating my Guangzhou metro trip in a couple days (the machines only take 1-kuai coins, not bills), I asked if they had coins at the counter after having dinner.

"冇啊," she said. "有嗰陣時又冇人要。" ("No, and when we do no one wants them.")

I laughed. I guess the preference for light paper bills over annoying, heavy coins is universal (note the reluctance of people in the U.S. to replace the dollar bill with a dollar coin).


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08-03-08_1712.jpgHere's a lovely little supermarket logo. I think it's a person on a bike. The unfortunate part of it is the string of letters of along the top, which seem to make no sense at first glance. Guess what the letters SCSHHSYYXZRGS stand for... (scroll down for the answer)














OK, here's the answer: 四川省互惠商业有限责任公司. I found it on the side of a package of toilet paper, right about the time one of the ladies in the store walked over to me and said, sir, you can't take pictures here.

Sichuan University Museum

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Today I went to the Sichuan University Museum, which, according to reviews, is one of the better museums in the southwest of China, with a good ethnographic section.

Peh! This does not make me want to visit other museums in southwest China.

I found the collections to be rather sparse and superficial. I suppose it was, perhaps, worth the 10 kuai student admission (about USD 1.50---I actually had a conversation with myself to convince myself that it would be worth that much to take a look even if it sucked), and their "ethnicities" section dutifully displayed artifacts and clothing from Tibetans, Qiang, Miao, Naxi, and Yi, but it hardly does justice to the complex ethnographic and linguistic make-up of southwest China. The language that I'm studying, for example, is not even mentioned (since it's subsumed under the general category of "Tibetan", even though the language isn't Tibetan at all). The English descriptions posted on the walls were passable at times, and utterly nonsensical at others.

There's a kind of interesting archaeology section in the basement, but it too is superficial. It briefly introduces various archaeological sites that have been excavated in Sichuan, displays some artifacts from them, and shows you the innards of a scaled-down model kiln. I still have no idea how a kiln actually works. (Maybe you stick bricks in one end, and plates and bowls come out the other...) But there's so much more they could have said. What was significant about these discoveries? How did they change our understanding of history and pre-history? How does modern development, e.g., the building of the Three Gorges Dam, affect archaeological excavation? For the ethnography section, which groups have become more Sinicized, and which groups have maintained their own language and culture? How are people dealing with the loss of language and culture in the face of Han expansion? Are there efforts being made to preserve or at least document these cultures? None of these questions are addressed in the museum exhibits.

I expect the party line in tourist brochures and web sites. But from a museum affiliated with an academic institution, I expect better.

(To be fair, the shadow puppets were pretty damn cool.)


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Chendu bus announcement

There is a brief moment of levity at every bus stop in Chengdu, when the name of the stop is announced (prerecorded) in both Mandarin and English. The English version is the following: "Now. [insert name of stop in Mandarin here]."

adding passport pages

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If you ever need to add passport pages, I highly recommend doing it abroad, where they do it while you wait. Every page of my passport has now been stamped or visa'd, so I went to the consulate here in Chengdu, which (after getting past the security) was an extremely pleasant experience, since the waiting room was air conditioned and they had old copies of the South China Morning Post (the Hong Kong-based English-language newspaper whose front page is one of the ones posted outside Moffitt, for those of you in Berkeley). Since I get no news here, even week-old news was welcome. I don't make an effort to watch the TV news here, since it's mostly sob stories about various natural disasters happening around the country---either that, or reports of where the "holy Olympic torch" was paraded around today. International news is pushed to the very end, it seems---you know, the spot where, in American news broadcasts, they show pictures of the cute puppies from today's county fair dog show. Newspapers are probably better, but I don't bother spending money on those either since all information is filtered by the you-know-who.

/ʂw/ > /f/

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In the town I'm in (Mianning), there's been a particularly disturbing and/or hilarious sound change in their variety of Southwestern Mandarin, namely /ʂw/ > /f/, the result of which is that, e.g., 'drink water' (喝水) is /xo⁵⁵ fei⁵⁵/, 'fun' (好耍) is /xao⁵⁵ fa⁵⁵/, and 'read' (看书) is /kʰæn²¹ fu⁵⁵/.

This sound change, as I hope all my Ling 130 students will recall, is a kind of fusion, since /f/ retains the manner of articulation from the fricative /ʂ/, and the labial place of articulation from /w/.

kayaking china (on TV)

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I confess... my guilty pleasure here is the National Geographic channel. (Actually, English-language TV in general, but the other two channels are movie channels and the movies are usually a family affair. Hot Fuzz is a great movie, by the way.) Last night I watched "Whitewater Kayak China". It was definitely superficial on the cultural commentary (one of the guys was even going to stay in China for a whole six months to learn "the language"), but it was definitely well-shot and the kayaking was pretty damn cool.

at the travel agency

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There is exactly one travel agency here, and I went there today to buy a plane ticket from Chengdu to Guangzhou. I was originally going to take an overnight train from Kunming, but my plans now require going back to Chengdu first, and a train from there to Guangzhou will take something like two days---too long to be trapped in a train in China, for me. So here I am at the single travel agency here, they tell me they have a ticket for 50% off, I say I want it, they ask for my ID, and I pull out my passport. Dear goodness, they say, what country is he from? (In such circumstances people always seem to prefer to ask the person I'm with where I'm from, even though I'm obviously capable of telling them myself.) I tell them. The boss says, normally we don't do business with Americans, but since you're Chinese (华裔), it's OK. (And one that can speak Putonghua, too, the woman working there adds.) He tells me that Bush is to blame for the high oil prices, along with all the war around the world. They don't do business with Americans or Japanese, he tells me. (They're anti-Japanese for WWII reasons... I've been kind of shocked at how many TV shows and movies here are about the Japanese invasion of China, which naturally vilify the Japanese. I'm also kind of surprised that the actors portraying the Japanese are actually speaking Japanese, though I can't tell if their accents are horrible or not.) I try to explain how the foreigners they meet here are just ordinary people, and remind him that pretty much half the people in the U.S. didn't even vote for Bush, and the woman helps out by saying yes, it's not like everyone's a political scientist. He says, but maybe it will send a message if people know that Americans are disliked even in a small, remote town like here. He goes on to bring up the March incidents in Tibet. Isn't it good that it's being developed, he asks rhetorically. He goes on to tell me, pretty much every foreigner here ends up reporting to our travel agency, since they have to buy train or plane tickets. I smile and nod.

We walk out of the travel agency, and the important thing is, I have my half-price plane ticket in hand.


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Dude, when did Obama get the nomination? Dammit, I get no news here.

gone swimming

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river-pan.jpg On the other hand, it's very beautiful here... (this is a 360-degree pan... if anyone knows how to clean up the boundaries i'd appreciate help!)

web cafes

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Web cafes are kind of terrible here, if only because of all the smoke. Also, there are notices posted saying "no minors allowed", but I swear last time I witnessed a twelve year old kid committing both offenses: puffing away at a cigarette and surfing the web at the same time.


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The TV is on pretty much all the time here. Today I had some TV time to myself, during which time I discovered the National Geographic Asia channel. To celebrate ten years of "Nat Geo in Asia", they were counting down the top 30 documentaries. The one I saw was about how bees are disappearing. CCD is what it's called--Colony Collapse Disorder. Basically a third of the food we eat and something like 70% of the plant life out there depends on bees for pollination (and thus reproduction), and for a variety of reasons bee populations in various countries including the U.S., France, and possibly England experienced massive decreases last winter (I assume they meant 2006-07?). Here in Sichuan, China, the town of Hanyuan has no bees at all because a couple decades ago they killed them all using pesticides. Hanyuan provides something like 80% of the pears in the region, and they way they do this, now that there are no bees, is by hand-pollination by humans. It's extremely labor-intensive, and unsustainable--with people increasingly moving to the cities nowadays hand-pollination probably won't be a viable option in ten or fifteen years.

internet withdrawal

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In high school my online friends would joke about experiencing withdrawal after not logging on for a day or two... It's been almost a week for me, and I suppose I am experiencing somewhat severe withdrawal symptoms. At night I'll have dreams of easy internet access, like an ethernet jack in the hotel room ("Why didn't I notice that earlier?"). Or I'll dream that I'm talking to a housemate: "Since we don't have internet access at our house this summer, where are you going to go online?" And they'll say, "Oh, at my office." Then I'll think, of course, I can just go to my office for internet access. Then I wake up and realize my office is thousands of miles away.

An anti-smoking ad

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06-03-08_1115.jpg Ran across this one this ad this morning on the campus of the Southwest University for Nationalities 西南民族大学. Using a video game metaphor, it says, 游戏开始了 / 你的生命正因此减少 "The game has begun. Your life is reduced because of this." Again, it's refreshing to see things like this, compared with the old man on the boat six years ago, who asked if I smoked. When I told him no, he told me, 你要学! (You should learn!)

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