Misplaced Shame

On West Beijing Road there is a large structure known as the Shanghai Center, an Escher-esque business and shopping center with winding staircases which lead to apparently impossible geometries. Located in the center of town, its eye-catching and stylish architecture is indicative of its youth, and is a banner of Shanghai’s rapidly increasing prosperity. Naturally, it’s got a Starbucks.

For reasons of which I am still unclear, I purchased a drink therein. Upon returning my receipt, the cashier struggled to inform me of some sort of redeemable prize I could attain. After a few aborted attempts, I told him that I understood Chinese, of which he was endlessly thankful. After it was over, he apologized profusely for his English and I walked away with a quiet shame. This was one of many instances I’d experienced in my brief time here in Shanghai of people in the service industry expressing extreme embarrassment for communication difficulties. Let me put that another way:

There are many people in China who are embarrassed because they don’t speak perfect English.

Does this fact bother no one but me? I feel like a fat, slovenly Caesar riding on the backs of poor, naked Chinese. I feel overcome with a wave of imperial guilt, like white Europeans seem to feel toward poor immigrants. My employment is predicated upon the idea that English is somehow more valuable than Chinese (a fact which is now impossible to deny). Other expats seem to be largely immune to this sense of shame, or see it as adorable. I’m lead to believe that not very many attempt to bridge the language gap, which only reinforces the problem.

One fact, however, lessens any negative emotions I might feel when I think on the disparity in relative importance of our mother tongues. All services catering to an English-speaking public are about two to five times more expensive than those meant for the Chinese. They may be shamefully berating themselves for their lack of English skills, but they’re doing it all the way to the bank.


Money and China

Perhaps it is because I’ve never enjoyed the simple pleasures of middle-class American life that the “necessities” of many foreigners relocating to China seem egregiously exorbitant to me. Dining out, name-brand clothing, gym memberships, paying bills on time, these all seem like the stuff of legend, or at least weeknight sitcoms. I’ve been poor my whole life, and I like to think that it has bred in me some degree of character. If nothing else, it has acclimated me to a simpler existence than most. Some may consider my pay meagre, but I make much more than the average Chinese with a graduate degree. I live in a tiny whole in the wall and I love it. I’ve got the internet, some books, some beer in the fridge, and a gadget or two. I’m not showing off my new Prada bag to the bleach-blondes at Chez Doucherie, but I certainly don’t feel like I’m missing out on much. I’m even managing to save a portion of my check each pay period. If there’s anyone wondering if they’ll survive in this town on a “paltry salary,” my advice is to first save enough money to have your head surgically removed from your ass; it’ll save you a lot in the long run no matter where you live.

Shanghai Scene #1

The room is dark and quiet. I linger in sleepless limbo. Outside my window, a congregation is forming, speaking loudly in a language I do not understand. I ignore them. An orange light emanates from the west. Several minutes pass, and the gradual loudening of voices stabilizes. Dean rises from his place on my couch and goes to the window to inspect the scene. “Wake up,” he tells me. “We’ve got to go. 着火了 着火了” Some time elapses before I am able to translate the sentence. The building has caught on fire.

I grab my laptop and rush to my roommate’s door, knocking loudly. We inform them of the situation and hurry down the old, wooden stairs. Gray streams of smoke drift slowly just outside the window; after a few floors, we can no longer see them. We wait by the door as streams of people rush by in both directions speaking Shanghainese and heavily-accented Mandarin. Everything I own is on the sixth floor. All my documents, clothes, trinkets, everything except my laptop.

Because I have forgotten my shoes, my feet are bare as I walk carefully upon the rain-slicked concrete. My roommate and her boyfriend descend the staircase hand-in-hand, looking about in dazed confusion. When they come to greet me, I am alone, and Dean has fled to inspect the damage. Fiona’s English abandons her in this time of distress, and her boyfriend’s English is nonexistent. I learn that I am virtually unable to speak Chinese when worried, and can only nod or respond in one-word sentences.

“Where’s Dean?” – “Gone.”
“Where are your shoes?” – “Forgot.”
“Would you like to go for a walk? It’s dangerous here.” – “Sure.”

Dean rejoins our company and informs us of situation. The building next to ours is engulfed in fire. We can hear glass from upper stories crashing to ground. Surely, as we speak, people are dying. We wonder aloud what the cause of this could have been, but our questions are in vain. We walk to the front gate where the police are pacing back and forth, speaking in a language lost to us. Fiona is in tears, hardly able to walk without support from her boyfriend. We’re exhausted, uncertain as to the fate of our belongings, confused and angry. Fiona’s face is a maze of dried tear trails; at their origin are large oval eyes sparkling under the weight of tears yet to be shed. Her boyfriend takes her by the hand and pulls her in the opposite direction. “We’re going for a walk,” he says. “It’s dangerous here. She needs to breathe fresh air.” Dean leaves shortly after, unable to stay still for very long. As I sit alone near the police, it begins to drizzle lightly and I hold myself by the shoulders for fear of freezing.

Dean has been gone for a while. I am nervous. I turn to the police, ashamed and embarrassed. “Pardon me,” I begin, “My Chinese isn’t very good, so please be patient.” They nod in approval. “What is it that I hear about the fire? You were saying something earlier that I didn’t quite understand.” “It’s been put out.” “Put out?!” I want to ask how far its spread, how many lives were lost, a thousand other questions, but my Chinese fails me. I am unable to make further conversation. I sit alone on the bench and watch the emergency vehicles as they circle my complex and listen to the sweeping of broken glass and brick and to the gradually fading voices in the familiar distance.

A quick remark

One of my favorite novels is one that I read fairly recently, Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, a cerebral science fiction that explores many of the more fascinating ideas ever preserved in print. Toward the beginning is the following passage:

“Suddenly, looming up in the opening which led to the communal bathroom, a tall silhouette appeared, barely distinguishable in the surrounding gloom. I stood stock still, frozen to the spot. A giant Negress was coming silently towards me with a smooth, rolling gait. I caught a gleam from the whites of her eyes and heard the soft slapping of her bare feet. She was wearing nothing but a yellow skirt of plaited straw; her enormous breasts swung freely and her black arms were as thick as thighs. Less than a yard separated us as she passed me, but she did not give me so much as a glance. She went on her way, her grass skirt swinging rhythmically, resembling one of those steatopygous statues in anthropological museums.”

I think people in the Beiyangjing and Jinqiao areas of Pudong can sympathize with the narrator’s sentiments.


A short while ago, I made a post about how the Chinese seem to be oblivious to the building block nature of their language. This is both true and not true, because the Chinese are hyper aware of Chinglish.

Chinglish is all the wonderfully bad translations that the Chinese make when they’re not exactly sure of a proper translation. The Chinese are all extremely embarrassed when they are caught doing it, and sometimes will pre-empt the corrector with, “That’s Chinglish, isn’t it?” Case in point, my current roommate Fiona called herself a “north person” and immediately remarked upon the Chinglish nature of her translation. She was translating the word 北方人(bĕifāngrén) directly from Chinese to English. Once my former roommate asked me how to translate 洗头 (xĭtóu) into English. When I told her that we say “wash hair” she was astonished. “Sounds like Chinglish,” she remarked dryly.

Shortly after I arrived in Shanghai, I got terribly ill. Immediately upon entering the local pharmacy, the English-speaking employee walked up to me with a face lacking any semblance of emotion and said, “Hello, what’s wrong with you?” I awkwardly spat out a laugh and quickly covered my mouth. She didn’t know any better. Actually, it was kind of cute.

Many people will have you believe that with the improvement in English education all of the embarassing Chinglish has disappeared from public establishments. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Walking downtown in one of the busiest areas of the city, you’ll see signs like “Styles the Hair and Things Company” in large silver letters on the sides of buildings1. This is perhaps the only country where one can buy “Nice Claup2.” One of my students wore a shirt recently that read “I’m pretty ladey raindow,” while a parent wore a shirt that I would love to own myself “Do you happy? Yes I do!” I only wish I owned a camera, so I could take pictures of these examples when I see them, and not rely on my pathetic human memory.

Perhaps my favorite example of Chinglish is a store not too far away from my current apartment, with the most inscrutable title I’ve ever seen. Month also know. This name confuses me to the point that I am unable to properly end this blog post.

1 As a side note, I should add that the establishment’s Chinese name is 美发美容用品公司, literally: beautiful hair cosmetics goods company. So their translation is even more of a mystery to me.

2 When asked, I was informed that “claup” meant the combination of all beautiful things.

Laowai Smash

Maybe you’re familiar with Azrael and his infamous blog, Gaijin Smash, which chronicled his adventures as a large black man living in Japan in the early part of this century. I’m not certain if he coined the term or not, but the idea of the “gaijin smash” is pretty popular; basically it denotes the nearly limitless power of the foreigner—gaijin—to get away with social taboos, or sometimes even minor illegal activity simply because they are foreign. This could stem from a number of deeper causes, such as Japanese intimidation at the outsider, inability to communicate, or the sheer size difference, but nonetheless it appears to be something of a rule for foreigners in most parts of Japan.

Lo and behold, the same is certainly true in China. Being a laowai—Chinese for gaijin—means immunity to many social mores. Back of the line for the subway? Laowai smash. Don’t quite feel like paying for the bus? Laowai smash. Sidewalk traffic moving too slow? Laowai smash. Just pretending to speak no Chinese at all makes me immune to the myriad salesman trying to push their product on me, and when there are people in my vicinity saying less than polite things about me in Chinese, “accidentally” making their lives more inconvenient is all chalked up to my laowai insensitivities.

Don’t get me wrong, being as obvious a foreigner as I am can certainly lead to a very isolated existence; the hardships of relocating to an entirely different civilization for whom nearly every aspect of the lives of its citizens varies wildly from one’s own can hardly be smooth sailing. I like to think of the laowai smash as a gift from the people of Asia to the bewildered westerner. It certainly has the tendency to brighten my day.

Some things I’ve noticed

Pornography is illegal here in China, but if it weren’t, it would probably go a little something like this: Start with a sexy seductress sitting behind a 2 centimeter thick glass wall, eyeing the camera wantonly. For every button she undoes on her white dress, she slides a stack of papers in the viewer’s direction, pointing to an area to be filled in triplicate and signed in black ink. After about thirty rounds of this, it is revealed that she’s wearing what seems to be an infinite regression of white dresses. Eventually, her lust is palpable, and as she bites her lower lip, she pulls out the Red Stamp and starts to slowly, sensuously mark the appropriate papers with her crimson seal of approval. Only then is the first hint of flesh exposed to the camera.

Bureaucracy is only one of the many fetishes here in the Middle Kingdom. Another one is for escalators. Where there is a narrow escalator, you will find potentially a hundred Chinese crowd to board it while the wide staircase to its side remains conspicuously empty. While you’re noticing this, you may see a few foreigners walk past in the background. Your eyes will meet, very briefly, but you will not say anything to each other. This is what I dub the Awkward Foreign Stare™.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that the Chinese love to take English names, for whatever reason, and usually they are reasonable, like Jenny, Billy, or Lucy. But there are definitely a few popular names whose origins I question, such as “Echo,” “Jelly,” “Usher,” “Brain,” “Happy,” and the nearly ubiquitous “Apple.” I think it would be a nice academic pursuit to find out just why there is no shortage of names of this caliber.

In most places in the English-speaking world, it’s quite common to find foreigners interacting in their native tongue, they take a slight break to interact with English speakers, then return to the language that’s more familiar to them. This feeling of exclusion essentially comes with the territory of being American. It is wonderfully refreshing to be the foreigner interacting in a tongue lost to everyone around you, only to break occasionally to interact in the local language.

One thing that I regret somewhat is the fact that at least in the more traditional establishments women don’t drink. I’ve yet to see a Chinese woman deign to let alcohol touch her lips. I always feel so ashamed when ordering a beer, which is quite a shame because Xinjiang beer is genuinely really good. I highly recommend it. Even if you do happen to be a traditional Chinese girl.