Customs of the Chinese Post

By far, one of the more laughable things about living in China is the postal system. People tootle around in little bicycle trucks with China Post or EMS or Amazon on the sides, delivering packages and letters to their destinations. Once they get there, they call your phone and you go collect your package. It’s really rather a smart system, for things within China. For things coming outside of China, though, they don’t do so well. The number of packages and letters that they’ve lost for us amounts to nearly half of the packages and letters that have been sent here. Maybe they like the poor Americans to feel even lonelier amid their thousands of people. Or maybe we just don’t know enough Chinese to get our address right.

The latest edition in the silliness of Chinese Customs, however, was just recently. My parents sent a small box a couple days ago (full of stuff that I’m too much of a cheapskate to buy, like clothes–seriously, everything nice here I’ve seen has cost around 600-800 RMB. No thanks!), and FedEx customs wanted to know every detail. Could I send them my passport? Done. Could I fill out a form with my name and address and passport number, signing away my rights to inspect the package? Done. Could I tell them, in minute detail, what the contents of the package were? Not really. But I tried, using my stereoscopic X-ray vision that can zoom in on a package I’ve never seen that’s somewhere in the middle of Beijing and determine what EXACTLY was put into it back in America. I’m cool like that.

Actually, I just made it up, based on my rudimentary knowledge of what I was expecting to see in the package. So Mom, you better not have stashed anything illegal in it. May I suggest, oh dearest of dear Customs people, that you think up a slightly smarter system for finding out what’s in people’s packages? Like, I don’t know, maybe asking the person who PACKED the package, instead of the recipient? Except they do that too. Maybe they like playing mind games with people.

Other than spending time obsessing over when (or if) I will get a letter or a package or some reminder that I haven’t fallen off the face of the earth and become one of your dear departed, I’ve just been up to the usual craziness. Eight classes. Midterms. Biking. And taking pictures of spring flowers, with which I will leave you:

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The Day I Almost Became the First Wife

To the Chinese, they say, there are only two countries in the world: China, and America. This bothers the Norwegians to no end, but we have little pity for them.

This hypothesis was borne out the other day when Jared was getting a shoe fixed in a small shop near our apartment. While he was in there, watching the shop owner carefully stitch up his shoe with strong thread, another Chinese man came in and began talking.

“You so strong! You so handsome! You must be an American,” he said.

Jared replied, “Thank you! I am an American.”

“You’re so good-looking,” he intoned again.

“Uh, thanks.” Jared said. “You are a teacher (he asked in Chinese)?”

“Yes,” he replied in English, “I am professor.” But his English wasn’t quite good enough to specify what it was he professed. So he returned to his favorite subject–the attractiveness of my husband.

“You are so good-looking, you can take care of two wifes,” he matter-of-factly stated.

Jared was a little shocked, but managed to croak out, “Uh, thank you, but I’m happy with the one I have.”

“No,” the man insisted, “you can take care of a second lover, one with nice legs, because you’re so handsome.” (No, this was not a comment on the state of my legs–I wasn’t there, and as far as I know the man had no idea if Jared was even married or had a wife!)

Jared was nonplussed by that, and could think of nothing more to say than, “Um, have a nice day!” as he ran away with his newly-fixed shoes. Chinese may admire America more now, but apparently traditional China isn’t dead yet!

All of this seemed particularly reminiscent to us as we’re reading Pearl Buck’s famous book The Good Earth, which tells the story of a Chinese farmer, Wang Lung, in traditional China. He begins poor. But then he gets a wife who up till then had been a slave in a Great House, and who now works beside him in the fields, bears him lots of sons, and makes him rich through her diligence (and talents at acquiring jewels). He then does what every self-respecting wealthy traditional Chinese man would do, and buys himself a second wife, appropriately named Lotus, for she was the human form of the flower: dainty, sweet smelling, useless in the fields, but my, what a sight to behold. Anyway, in the story, once he gets his Lotus, as you can imagine, the First Wife (O-lan) wasn’t very pleased, and his household became a very unhappy place. Wang Lung then forgets about his First Wife and enjoys his flower. Only when O-lan begins to die does he notice her again, but by then it is too late.

So I’m thankful Jared had the moral fortitude to run away from his hypothetical second wife with beautiful legs. He told me he didn’t need another flower–he already had his Rose.

A Packed Cathedral

Why would 20 or 30 Chinese stand outside a church in -2 Celsius weather for two hours? Most immediately, because there was no sitting or standing room inside the church. More broadly, because there is a spiritual void in China, and many Chinese turn to God to fill it.

This past weekend, we did some traveling in China to the ancient capital of Xi’an. Since we were there over a Sunday, we went to church. Research done beforehand had turned up a few churches, and we settled on St. Francis Cathedral since it was historic (built in 1716) and there was some English  information about it (quite scientific, eh?). Apparently it was closed for 14 years for the Cultural Revolution but made a strong comeback, and even opened up the first soup kitchen for the poor in all of China in 2005. Unfortunately, while our research told us service times, it failed to tell us what language those services were in.

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So we showed up at 9:30 for the 10:00 service, and found out it was all in Chinese! We followed along where we could (we understood “Amen” and “alleluia” and “Jesu”. . .and that was about it). All the songs sounded very Chinese, and the girl sitting next to me obligingly held over her songbook so I could “read” along. I tried to sound like I was singing in Chinese, anyways, but it probably didn’t work.

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The inside (brightly colored in Chinese style) of the church.

It was amazing, though, to see all the Chinese people who came to the service. The building was completely full–standing-room-only full! Even though we arrived half an hour early, we were still too late to sit in the pews in the nave. We had to sit in the quire. And the people who came after us had to sit behind the priest. There were people spilling out the doorways too, who stood for the whole two hours in the cold.

As we were leaving, we saw on the doorway that they DID have an English service–at 3:00 p.m. So we went back for that that afternoon.

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See the weathered stones?

We got there early again, hoping to sit in the regular pews so we could see better what was going on (it’s hard to listen to a sermon when you’re sitting behind and to the side of the preacher!). But no sooner had we sat down than a Chinese lady approached us and asked if we could read one of the readings and the prayers. (They told us they asked foreigners because they’re doubtful about everyone else’s English.) So we put on our vestments and went up to sit where we were before. Thankfully, there was another American there who regularly attended the church, and he explained when we were to read and how to bow and all that.

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It was an interesting mix of Chinese and Western architecture.

They never asked if we were Catholic or Protestant. It seemed to be enough that we were there and we were white. In fact, after the service we met a Pakistani who was Catholic. He said, “In Pakistan, nobody cares if you’re Catholic or Protestant, because there are so few Christians. The important thing is that you’re Christian. We have so much discrimination from Muslims that dividing against ourselves would be pointless!” 1.5% of Pakistanis, are Christians, he said, and he went to a church where 10,000 of them (both Protestant and Catholic) worshipped, married, and fellowshipped.

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In China, this attitude seems to hold as well. As Evan Osnos shows in his book Age of Ambition, for the last forty years Chinese have sought what Mao denied them: fortune, truth, and faith. Fortune, the Party has done a good job supplying. Truth it tries to counter through censorship (but pure negation is weak). Faith it has tried to supply through nationalism. But nationalism is a brittle and dangerous substitute for true religion, and one that is ultimately unsatisfying.  And so Chinese are turning to God.

Mao did his best to destroy traditional China. Then in the Reform and Opening period (starting in 1979–this church re-opened in 1980), Communist China was reformed and has gradually disappeared (even the ugly buildings are slowly being torn down). In the words of eminent historian John Lukacs, “Communism is a wasm.” Now, according to the Economist, China has a quickly growing–to the tune of 10% a year–Christian population. The light persecution offered by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), like taking crosses off of churches and stopping large house churches from meeting, makes Christianity more attractive to many Chinese. The blood of the martyrs (as long as it’s not too widespread, as it was in Tokugawa Japan), is indeed the lifeblood of the church.

So visiting this church, seeing so many Chinese praying and singing to God in their native language, was a reminder of God’s faithfulness. Old farmers, young children (who loved turning around and staring at us, until we winked at them and they blushed), middle-aged mothers and fathers all gathered together to worship God. That’s why people are so eager to come to church that they’ll stand outside in the cold for two hours–because they know that their God lives.

Only in China: Chinglish Edition

This is the one you’ve all been waiting for, right? Right?

Well, even if you haven’t, I’m always ready to oblige, so here it is anyway!

Number One:

You walk by grass every day, right? Well, have you ever stopped to think about it this way?

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Come on, people–we know you value life!

What I really love about this sign is just how well-cared-for this grass is. I mean, it’s green, and tall, and flourishing, right? (Oh, wait, it’s winter.)

Number two:

Possibly you’ve never thought about the grass being the “life under your feet,” but this sign is here to tell you that you really should. In its own words:

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Awww…

Doesn’t that just cut you to the heart? To think of all the times you’ve walked past that green grass and never cherished it! Well, you can begin today, because this sign knows what it’s talking about.

Number three:

We move away from grass here into the mundane area of food:

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I’m not sure what the elephants have to do with anything.

In case you were longing for some pizza to cherish, you could go to this pizza cafe. And while there, you could eat some Leisurefood (because of course it needs to be capitalized). And then you could enjoy some little yellow elephants. All at Crazy Pizza!

Number four:

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Umm–yum, I think?

Lest you be turned aside by the picture into thinking this is something you might actually consider eating, the words are there to get you right back on track. It’s like an instant diet plan–Eggs burst Mango juice, anyone? No? Well, then, you can Taro and enjoy the party.

Number Five:

This one might be sorta cheating because it’s a continuation of the same sign above–but all the names were so awful!

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Well, these do look SLIGHTLY more edible, I guess. . .

If you’d rather not Taro and enjoy the party, you can Pineapple instead. Isn’t that sweet of them? And I suppose Hami melon strawberry pie is an entirely unobjectionable flavor, so there’s that.

Number six:

Still more partying, people!

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Why is the cantaloupe one green, exactly?

Except this one was nice enough to provide us with Cantaloupe music! I bet that makes great dance music (and if you’re Baptist, you don’t have to dance. Just party.). And Strawberry is off by its lonesome enjoying that party. We’ve got ourselves some great sort of fruit party here.

Number seven:

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Oops, wrong sign. No English at all! Let’s try again.

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Oh, I’m VERY happy to send!

If you’d rather not be partying with the Taro-Pineapple-Cantaloupe Music-Strawberry crowd, you can come over here and get your Freshshake Healidrink. I’m not sure if it will turn you on your heels or shake you up or what, but at least they’re happy to send, which counts for something, right?

In the words of the immortal Bugs Bunny (who never came to China, I don’t think)–“That’s all, folks!”

If you missed out on editions one and two, head on over!

You can head on over to This Ain’t the Lyceum if you want more non-Chinglish posts.

Small, Ugly, and Alone

In China, people love their pets. Specifically dogs. Dogs everywhere.

Now, I’ve heard that there are three categories for being a Chinese dog:

1. You have to be small

2. You have to be ugly

3. You have to be off-leash

Oh, you say those categories fit your small child? He might possibly be a Chinese dog.

Anyways, let’s examine a few pictures and see if they fit those criteria.

Example 1:

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HI.

Definitely small, definitely ugly, and there is definitely no owner in sight. Yet the dog looks very purposeful. Chinese dogs always have a goal in mind and know how to achieve this goal. So, this dog fits our criteria like they were made for him. (Whaddaya know!)

Example 2:

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Obligingly posing for the camera. Except without his face.

Small? Check.

Ugly? Check

Alone? Check.

Folks, we have found yet another Chinese dog.

Example three:

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Look at it waddle!

I know this looks like nothing more than a ball of fur with a tail stuck on it, but rest assured it is a dog. However, I was unable to get a picture of it with its head, so pardon me.

Anyways, by this point you oughta know the drill: small, ugly, and alone? Bingo! (And the fact that it has little rabbit legs sticking out from under its fur doesn’t hurt anything, either).

Now that you know what Chinese dogs are, let’s move on to another example. Crazy Chinese dogs with crazy owners.

This lady (below) had about six dogs. All on the sidewalk. And she loved herding them and making them do “tricks.”

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Yes, that IS a doggie chair. And Jared says the dog in the forefront is not a Chinese dog (too good-looking), lest you should think that I am simply a dog hater and think all dogs are ugly.

Now, we were peacefully walking down the sidewalk minding our own business and getting sticker shock from clothing prices (600 Yuan for a shirt? No thanks!) when we saw this dog family. At the moment, the owner was getting paid by a customer. When most of us get money, what do we do with it? We put it in our wallets or our pockets or our safes, right? Well, you’ll never guess where this lady put it.

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Yes, that is money.

That’s right. She gave it to the dog. And for the next 10 minutes, he carried that money around.

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Who says having money doesn’t make me king?

Anyways, he played around with it for a while before finally getting bored and dropping most of it all over the sidewalk, and then leading his owner on a merry chase before surrendering the money.

After that little show, the dog owner decided we needed to see them doing some real tricks. So she got out her dog treat stuff, and they all surrounded her and stood on their hind legs. Pretty unimpressive after the whole money thing!

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Notice the bored dog on the chair–he’s not falling for any of it.

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After all of that, I expect you to be an expert on what makes a Chinese dog, so tell me: which one of these is a Chinese dog, and which one is American?

A:

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B:

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I have faith in your intelligence, so tell me in the comments!

With Grunts and Groans: Attempting to Learn Chinese

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My new wall hanging. If I learn Chinese well enough, I should even be able to read it!

Saying sounds on their own is not a good way to fall in love with a language. I’m surprised it ever worked for me back in kindergarten when I was learning phonics! Maybe it’s just because English sounds are more normal to me. Perhaps I’m even getting as English-centric as the fellow who declared that English was the best and most common-sense language in the world—and his proof was that he thought in it (I pray I’m not that narcissistic, though!).

Chinese sounds, however, are weirder than English sounds. All the zhs and chs and shs and rs (no, it’s NOT said like an “r” in English) are mind-bogglingly similar. And don’t even get me started on the vowel sounds—who knew that the simple letter “e” could make a sound similar to the one you make when you’re punched in the gut? I didn’t. Or that the difference between “chu” (pronounced /tʃu/) and “qu” (pronounced /tʃeu/) is a slight rounding of the vowel sound, which English speakers generally don’t even listen for?

So on the first few days of class, as the teacher went around the room having everyone pronounce all the sounds of Chinese, I have to admit they sounded funny. None of us—all Americans—were good at sounding like a Chinese speaker. In fact, we all sounded distinctly American and out-of-place. Sometimes we sounded like we’d had the wind knocked out of us. Speaking American English doesn’t prepare you well for learning the sounds of a different language, and Chinese has some definitely odd sounds.

On the plus side, though, tones are actually one of the easiest parts of learning Chinese. It’s a built in way to make you start thinking in the rhythm and intonation of the language. Of course they use them differently than English speakers do—instead of rising in intonation for a yes/no question, they rise in intonation for second-tone words. Just listen to a Chinese person speaking English and you’ll get an idea of the differences in intonation.

Language learning is like sanctification—it tears away masks put on by habits and shows you for who you really are. Then it builds you back up till you are, in some ways, a new person. It’s hard. It can’t happen immediately. And you will make mistakes—probably many times. And you will probably never become perfect.

You can’t be a perfectionist either—or you never get anywhere. Whenever Jared or I try to say anything in Chinese to a Chinese person, they laugh. Or look confused. Introducing himself to a random Chinese person in the cafeteria today, Jared tried to say, “Wo zhongye shi guoji zhuanxi” (my major is international relations). The Chinese person replied, “Oh, you study alternative medicine?” Apparently Jared had a tone wrong someplace or another.

To really excel at learning a language, you have to be willing to put aside some things that you think of as truly essential to who you are—you have to totally change the way you think and speak. You have to be willing to speak confidently, even when something as ingrown as your language is being changed. And you have to be willing to try again—and again, and again, and again. Hesitance and pride will get you nowhere. If you say something hesitantly in Chinese (as I tend to do), you will get the tone wrong (unless it’s a fourth tone and falling anyways).

They say perfect fluency is hard to achieve in any second language—the last five percent is the hardest to achieve. Ask anyone who’s lived a long life, and they’ll probably tell you the same thing about perfection. Of course, perfection is impossible, and learning a language perfectly is not. But sometimes the hard things are the ones most worth striving for.

P. S. Jared is actively working on his sanctification right now—he’s drawing characters and making pronouncements in Chinese about my family, while singing along to Mumford and Sons (I’m not sure how that really helps him with Chinese!).