The U.S. culture tries to dominate the world. That’s why other countries call it the vulture culture.
Here’s an old riddle:
According to the Internet, the United Nations conducted a worldwide survey whose only question was:
The survey failed because nobody understood the question.
Back in the 1500’s, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire was Charles V. He was truly international: he grew up in France (and Belgium), but his mother was Spanish, his father was German, and when he became emperor his territory included Italy. Here’s how he explained the difference between French, Spanish, German, and Italian:
A T-shirt in the British Virgin Islands says:
Here’s how the captain of a sinking cruise ship convinces the passengers to jump overboard:
The world keeps changing. Here’s an expanded version of statements by Charles Barkley and Chris Rock:
Americans often forget where the rest of the world is. For example, Americans forget these facts:
Those facts are from the geography chapter of Peter Winkler’s Mathematical Puzzles.
And now, from DOSJOKL (the Department of Stupid Jokes Only Kids Love), here’s a geography riddle:
(Read that out loud.)
Canadians love telling this tale:
Yes, Canadians have trouble dealing with their southern neighbor!
Pierre Trudeau (who was Canada’s prime minister) said:
Will Ferguson said:
Laurence J. Peter (who invented the Peter Principle) said:
Mike Myers said:
Andy Barrie said:
The Germans view the world differently from Americans.
Germans have a different view of cockroaches. The German word for “cockroach” is Küchenshabe, which means “kitchen scraper.” Whenever a German woman looks at a cockroach, she considers the cockroach to be a cute little robot that sweeps her kitchen. She doesn’t scream; instead, she says “Thank you!”
Mark Twain hated German
German grammar and literary style seem weird — especially to Americans such as Mark Twain. In 1880, Mark Twain critiqued German grammar in “The Awful German Language,” included in his essay collection called A Tramp Abroad.
German’s most amazing feature is the order in which Germans put their words.
Germans carry those two rules to an extreme.
Mark Twain found a German newspaper’s article whose words were in this order:
Spanish is one of the world’s most popular languages. Give it a look!
Of all the world’s popular languages, Spanish is the easiest to pronounce. Spanish’s rules of pronunciation are simple — if you ignore the exceptions!
Here are the rules and their exceptions.…
Vowels Spanish has just 5 vowel sounds:
To practice those vowel sounds and exceptions, say these Spanish words, which you probably know already:
When y is at a word’s end, it’s pronounced the same as i.
Consonants Spanish pronounces these consonants about the same way as in English: b, d, f, k, l, m, n, p, s, t, w, and y.
To sound truly Hispanic (instead of having an English accent), use these tricks:
Some regions speak differently:
The symbol ñ is pronounced like the “ny” in “canyon”.
These Spanish sounds are the same as others:
Here’s how to pronounce the other letters:
Stress Stress (emphasize) the next-to-last syllable. Examples:
Exception: if a word ends in a consonant that’s neither n nor s, stress the last syllable. Examples:
Further exception: if a vowel has an acute accent (the symbol ´), stress that vowel instead. That accent’s usual purpose is just to tell you which syllable to stress.
Stressing the right syllable is important! For example, papá (which stresses the last syllable) means “dad” but papa (which stresses the next-to-last syllable) means “pope” or “potato,” so don’t call your father “papa!”
Sometimes the acute accent is written just to distinguish two words that would otherwise look the same. For example, de means “of” but dé means “give”; both words are pronounced the same. Another example: si means “if” but sí means “yes.”
Vowel pairs When vowels are next to each other, they form a vowel pair. In a vowel pair, pronounce the vowels one-by-one. For example, to pronounce eo, pronounce the e (which sounds like the one in “café”) then pronounce the o (which sounds like the one in “go”).
The vowels i and u are weak. The other vowels (a, e, and o) are strong. Here are the rules:
Try it! Hey, you boring white-guy anglo: the next time you see Spanish (on a sign, ad, or instructions), try pronouncing the Spanish properly! Make your mouth marvelous!
Don’t be embarrassed
To translate the typical English word into Spanish, just add an o or an a. For example, “American” becomes Americano. But be careful:
If you’re a woman who feels embarrassed, don’t say you’re embarazada, since that means “pregnant.” If you say you’re embarazada, you’ll be very embarrassed!
American companies have made embarrassing blunders when trying to sell to Hispanics:
Latin American dangers
If you learned Spanish from a classical textbook and then go to Latin America, you’ll be surprised — because some Latin Americans have dirty minds.
For example, consider the Spanish word for “boy.” In Spain, the usual word for “boy” is niño or muchacho; but in El Salvador, the usual word for “boy” is cipote, which means “penis” or “little fucker.”
In Spain, the usual word for “mother” is madre, and the usual word for “father” is padre. Just infants say mamá and papá instead. A popular insult is tu padre, which means “your father — I shit on him!” A Spaniard’s biggest insult is to shit on a father; an American’s biggest insult is to fuck a mother instead.
In Mexico (a country that loves insults!), the tu padre insult has become so popular that the very mention of the word padre is considered offensive. So if you go to Mexico, you must never use the word padre. Instead, Mexicans use the word papá. Yes, polite Mexicans who want to avoid insults spend their entire lives talking like infants: they always say papá and mamá instead of padre and madre.
In Spain, the main word for “seize” or “pick up” is coger. For example, to “pick up the telephone” is coger el teléfono. But if you say coger el teléfono in Mexico or Argentina, everybody will laugh at you — because in those countries, coger is used just for picking up girls and fucking them. If you say you want to coger el teléfono, people will wonder why you want to fuck the telephone. Instead of coger, you must use the other word for “pick up,” which is tomar.
The typical Spanish-English dictionary says bollo means a bun (or muffin or bump) and papaya is a kind of fruit. But the dictionary doesn’t mention that bollo and papaya have obscene connotations in Cuba, where bollo is a woman’s pussy, and papaya is even worse. So if a Cuban woman serves you a muffin, don’t say, “I like your bollo” — unless you know her very well!
Though Spaniards often say olé, the word olé isn’t really Spanish: it’s Arabic. In Arabic, olé means “By God!” Spaniards snatched olé from the Arabs when the Arabs invaded Spain in 711 A.D.
In France, the meals are named as follows:
French Canadians, who are always in a rush, serve their meals earlier: they serve lunch (déjeuner) at breakfast time and serve supper (dîner) at lunchtime, like this:
To the French Canadian who explained all this to me, I asked, “What do you call the after-theater snack?” He replied, “In French Canada, we don’t go to the theater.”
French kids are like criminals
French has two words for “you.” The formal word is vous; the informal word, tu, is used just when speaking to close friends (such as relatives, colleagues, and God) and lower forms of life (such as children, criminals, and inanimate objects).
Make sure you choose the correct word. For example, one summer I was talking to a French Canadian girl who was 3 years old. Since she was a child, I should have called her “tu,” but I made the mistake of calling her “vous” instead, which was too formal. She was so amused at my formality — at my treating her like a queen — that she curtsied. She also called me a vieille banane, which means “old banana.”
When I asked why I was being called an “old banana,” her mom said I might have heard wrong; maybe the girl was calling me a vieux bonhomme, which means “old gentleman.”
But then we heard the girl call me a vieille banane again, and her mom admitted I was indeed being called an “old banana,” but consoled me by saying that “Old Banana” was just a TV personality whom the girl thought I resembled.
Oh, well. I’ve been called worse!
How Americans changed France
What do the French admire about us Americans? To find out, look at which words the French have borrowed from us.
The French use these American words for types of music:
The French use these American words for clothing:
The French say sweat for a sweatshirt. The French say basket for a basketball sneaker or any other sports sneaker.
The French use these American words for food & drink:
The French say lunch for any cold meal, even at dinnertime. The French say corn-flakes for any breakfast cereal dunked in cold milk, even if it contains no corn.
Here are more American words have crept into the French language and are popular in France now:
The French say black for any dark-skinned person, say blush for cheek makeup, say break for a coffee break, say chat for Internet chat, say dandy for a fancy-looking person, say gloss for lip gloss, say hit for a success, say jet for jet airplane, say look for appearance, say mail for e-mail, say net for Internet, say roller for roller skates, say sitting for a sit-down protest demonstration in the street, say spot for a spotlight, say starter for a car-ignition starter, say stick for lipstick or a glue stick, say tank for an army tank, say trust for a big international company, say turnover for personnel changes, and say Western for a cowboy movie.
The French put le before most of those words: le best-seller, le boy-scout, le brainstorming, etc. The main exceptions are kitchenette and nurse, which the French consider to both be feminine, so they get la instead of le.
Old French fuddy-duddies who don’t like English intrusions call them Franglais.
More examples of French craziness are in 1001 Pitfalls in French, by Grew & Oliver. I thank Christophe Paysant’s family for helping me keep the list updated.
The ultimate French-American was Maurice Chevalier, who loved to sing in English with a French accent. I wish he would have sung “My Way” — he would have been cute — but Sinatra got that job.
French teachers love the bilingual song popularized by Nat King Cole in the 1950’s:
I wish more people would write bilingual songs like that!
French can get confused with English. For example, consider this tale:
Speaking Japanese is easy — because the Japanese borrowed many words from us Americans.
To speak Japanese, you need to know just 3 rules.
Rule 1: the Japanese don’t like c, l and v The Japanese change c to either k or s (depending on how the c is pronounced in English), change l to r, and change v to b. For example, the English word “vitamin” becomes the Japanese word bitamin.
Let’s translate the English word “gasoline” into Japanese. Since the Japanese hate long words, they abridge it to “gasolin”; then they apply rule 1, which gives gasorin.
Let’s translate “television” into Japanese. Since the Japanese hate long words, they abridge it to “televi”; then they apply rule 1, which gives terebi.
Rule 2: the Japanese avoid putting two consonants next to each other To apply that rule, the Japanese often resort to cleverness.
For example, let’s translate the English word “correspondence” into Japanese. Since the Japanese hate long words, they abridge it to “correspon”; then they apply rule 1, which gives “korrespon.” But according to rule 2, the Japanese don’t like the “rr” and the “sp.” So the Japanese shorten the “rr” to “r,” and shorten the “sp” to “p,” and get korepon.
Rule 2 says to avoid pairs of consonants. The Japanese often break up a pair of consonants by inserting “u” in the middle of the pair. For example, to break up “pr,” the Japanese often insert “u” in the middle and get “pur.” Thus, the English word “pro” (which means “professional”) becomes the Japanese word puro.
Let’s translate “word processor.” The Japanese think it sounds like “ward processor.” Since the Japanese hate long expressions, they abridge it to “wa pro.” To break up the “pr,” they insert “u” in the middle, and get wapuro.
Let’s translate “platform.” The Japanese abridge it to “platfo.” Applying rule 1, they get “pratfo.” According to rule 2, the “pr” and “tf” are unacceptable, so the Japanese change “pr” to “pur” and change “tf” to “t”: they get purato.
Rule 3: the only consonant the Japanese permit at the end of a word is n To avoid ending with a consonant that’s not n, the Japanese add the letter “o” or “u” at the end.
For example, let’s translate the word “gas.” Since “gas” ends in a consonant, which violates rule 3, the Japanese add the letter “u” at the end, and get gasu.
Let’s translate the word “hotel.” Applying rule 1, that becomes “hoter.” Since that ends in a consonant, rule 3 makes the Japanese add the letter “u” at the end, and get hoteru.
Let’s translate “catalog.” Applying rule 1, that becomes “katarog.” Rule 3 makes the Japanese add “u” and get katarogu.
Let’s translate “bell.” Applying rule 1, that becomes “berr.” Applying rule 2, the “rr” is shortened to “r,” giving “ber.” Rule 3 makes the Japanese add “u” and get beru.
Let’s translate “pool,” which is pronounced “pul.” Applying rule 1, that becomes “pur.” Rule 3 makes the Japanese add “u” and get puru.
Let’s translate “building,” which is pronounced “bilding,” and which the Japanese abridge to “bil.” Applying rule 1, that becomes “bir.” Rule 3 makes the Japanese add “u” and get biru.
Let’s translate “apartment.” The Japanese abridge it to “apart.” But rule 2 says the “rt” is unacceptable, so the Japanese abridge it to “t,” giving “apat.” Rule 3 makes the Japanese add “o” and get apato.
Let’s translate “software.” The Japanese abridge it to “soft.” Since the Japanese have difficulty hearing the difference between f and h, they think it sounds like “soht.” But rule 2 says the “ht” is unacceptable, so the Japanese insert “u,” giving “sohut.” Rule 3 makes the Japanese add “o” and get sohuto.
Let’s translate “personal computer.” The Japanese pronounce it “parsonal computer,” and abridge it to “parso com.” According to rule 1, that becomes “parso kom.” Since rule 2 says the “rs” is unacceptable, the Japanese then drop the “r” and get “pasokom.” But that violates rule 3. To satisfy rule 3, the Japanese change the “m” to “n,” and get pasokon.
Here’s what we Americans gave the Japanese:
If you want to impress your friends, say our alphabet — in Japanese! Here’s how the Japanese say it: ei, bii, shii, dei, ii, efu, jii, eichi, ai, jei, kei, eru, emu, enu, oo, pii, kyuu, āru, esu, tei, yuu, bui, dabburu yuu, ekisu, uai, zetto.
Country of yes-men
How would you feel if a stranger walked up to you and said just “Yes!” even though you hadn’t asked a question? That’s how the Japanese feel about us Americans — because when we need to talk with a stranger, we begin by saying “Hi!” which sounds the same as the Japanese word hai, which means yes. Next time you say “Hi” to a visitor from Japan, don’t be surprised if he responds by saying, “I’m sorry — what was the question?”
Japanese like hurly-burly
To make a word plural, the Japanese like to say the word twice, but changing the first letter. For example, the Japanese word for “person” is hito; the Japanese word for “people” is hito-bito.
In that example, h became b. Notice that h is a “quiet” letter; it became b, which is a “noisy” letter. The general rule is: a quiet letter becomes a noisy letter. Here are more examples:
To have fun, apply those same rules to English. Ask your lover: “Do you want tickle-dickle, hug-bug, kiss-giss, or just shower-jower?”
The most important foreign country is China. Here’s why.…
China is slightly smaller than the U.S. but contains 4 times as many people. There are over 1.2 billion people in China, compared with under .3 billion in the U.S.
There are 6 billion people in the whole world. A quarter of them live in China.
At first glance, China doesn’t look crowded; but it is. The U.S. has just one crowded city (New York); China has several. The U.S. has vast unoccupied areas (forests, deserts, mountains, canyons, and swamps); China’s are smaller.
To prevent further crowding, the Chinese government passed many laws encouraging couples to have just one child.
India is even more crowded: it’s much smaller than China but contains almost as many people (1 billion). India permits couples to have many children, and then do. In the next 25 years, people predict India’s population will increase to 1.4 billion, making it even more populous than China; but for now, China is still the most populous country.
Of all the languages in the world, Mandarin Chinese is the most popular native language. For every person whose native language is English, there are 2½ people whose native language is Mandarin Chinese. (The world’s other popular native language is Hindi, spoken in India; it’s just slightly more popular than English.)
If you travel all over the world, you’ll discover that more schools teach English than Chinese. In all countries, students study English, usually as a foreign language. Even students in China study English! That makes English the most popular foreign language; but Chinese is the most popular native language.
China is modernizing fast. Chinese consumers are rapidly buying Western goods, and Chinese factories are rapidly making goods to sell to the West. The Chinese are very excited about all that international trade in both directions, and the Chinese have been quickly constructing fancy factories, fancy stores, and fancy housing. China’s stock market and real-estate market have both been generating huge profits for investors. China is exciting — a hot marketplace.
The Chinese government’s challenge is to control the bubble so it grows safely without bursting. China’s immediate concern is to slow down construction somewhat (to give the electric utilities a chance to catch up with the increased demand) and to fix the banking system (where half of all loans are never repaid, because they’re given too easily to friends, politicians, and failing government-owned businesses).
After the Soviet Union disintegrated, China was left as the only big country worrying the U.S. (Of course, the U.S. worries about smaller countries too, such as North Korea and battlers in the Middle East.) China is worrisome because:
Goods from China have cost little because the Chinese government kept an artificial exchange rate of about 8 yuan per dollar, even though most economists say a fairer rate would be 5 yuan per dollar. Other countries have asked China to change the exchange rate, and China’s promised to do so by the 2008 Olympics. So far, China has let the exchange rate dip to 6½ yuan per dollar, so a yuan costs about 15¢. When China eventually lets the exchange rate fall to 5 yuan per dollar, the whole world’s trade could be thrown out of kilter, unless China handles the change carefully.
China’s borders touch many countries that the U.S. worries about. Though most Chinese people yellow-skinned, some are white (near Russia’s border) and some are brown (near India’s border). Like the U.S., China has many minorities, which celebrate their own cultures, though not as freely as in the U.S. (since the Chinese government frowns on religions and anything threatening the Chinese Communist Party).
If you want a challenge, try learning Chinese! It’s tricky!
In China, most signs are written just in Chinese characters, but a few signs also show writing in pinyin, which uses Roman characters (to help Westerners and young Chinese kids who haven’t learned all the Chinese characters yet).
To understand Chinese, your first step is to learn how to pronounce pinyin. Here’s how.
Consonants In pinyin, these 15 consonants are pronounced about the same way as in English: b, p, d, t, k, m, n, l, r, f, s, h, j, w, and y. Here are 3 other easy consonants: pronounce g like the one in “go,” sh like the one in “she,” and ch like the one in “cheese.”
Unfortunately, these 5 consonants are pronounced quite differently from English:
To sound truly Chinese (instead of having an American accent), use these tricks.…
Vowels In pinyin, most vowels are pronounced the same way as in French. So before studying Chinese, it’s helpful to study French! That’s why the French speak Chinese better than other Westerners.
Since you probably don’t know French yet, here are examples in English:
Here are two exceptions:
When several vowels are next to each other, pronounce them one-by-one. For example, to pronounce ai, pronounce the a (which sounds like the one in “mama”) then pronounce the i (which sounds like the one in “machine”); you’ll wind up with a diphthong (vowel sequence) that sounds like the “i” in “bite”. Chinese uses these 13 diphthongs:
In Chinese, the typical syllable consists of one consonant sound, then one vowel sound (or a diphthong), then, optionally, a special ending (n or ng or r). Any special ending affects the sound of the vowel before it:
For example, here’s how to pronounce Chinese family names (in Mandarin):
Tones In pinyin, you can put 4 accents above a vowel. The accents are called tones. The tones can make a difference:
Here’s how to pronounce them:
When a Chinese person speaks to you, tones 1 and 3 are easy to recognize, since they’re long: tone 1 stays high; tone 3 dips. If you hear a syllable that’s short, it’s either tone 0 (which is quiet), tone 4 (which is forceful and accented), or tone 2 (which rises).
To practice the tones, try saying this sentence:
It means “Pock-marked mother scold horse, huh?” which means “Does the pock-marked mother scold the horse?”
For “mother,” the Chinese can say mā but more commonly say māma. (The first syllable is the first tone; the second syllable is toneless. The word sounds like an American baby yelling for his mother: “Mama!”) You can put it in that sentence:
A syllable is toneless if it’s a repetition, such as the ma at the end of māma. Here’s another example of repetition: the Chinese word for “father” or “papa” is bàba. For brothers & sisters, the Chinese care about their ages:
So a syllable is toneless if it’s a repetition — or if it’s a particle (a grammar element, such as the ma that means “huh?”).
When ordering food, be careful:
Many family names use the second tone (Táng, Wáng, Yáng, Chén, and Chéng), but these family names use different tones: Zhāng, Lĭ, and Sòng.
Laziness about tones Saying the 3rd tone requires a lot of time & effort: you’re supposed to dip your voice down, then bring it back up. The Chinese do that full procedure just if the 3rd tone comes before a long pause (such as at the end of a sentence). Otherwise, the Chinese rush by taking these shortcuts:
Students and Westerners study tones (to pronounce well), but writing them is tedious, so most sign writers don’t bother writing tones on signs — and I won’t bother writing tones in later parts of this book.
When the Chinese write tones above ü, they sometimes don’t bother writing the dots above the u.
Don’t worry: if you say wrong tones, Chinese listeners can usually guess what you mean. For example, they can guess whether you’re trying to ask for your mother (mā) or a horse (mă). It’s more important to pronounce correctly consonants and vowels: if you botch those, your listeners will be totally confused.
Wade-Giles Mao’s government started using pinyin in 1958, to communicate with kids and Westerners. But many Westerners kept trying to use an older Romanization system, called Wade-Giles, until the 1980’s. Now we all use pinyin (because it more accurately indicates Chinese pronunciation), but some of you old fogies might still remember the Wade-Giles spellings:
Characters Instead of being in pinyin, most signs are in traditional Chinese characters. Each character is a picture, one syllable.
Some characters are simple:
Other characters are more complex, containing many keystrokes.
In 1956, Mao’s government simplified the most complex characters. The simplified characters are used on the Chinese mainland but not on the island of Taiwan, which still uses the older, fancier characters.
In Chinese characters, sentences are usually written from left to right (like English), but they can also be written from right to left (which is more traditional) or from top to bottom (vertically, which is even more traditional). Chinese books are usually written from front to back (like English), but they can also be written from back to front (which is more traditional). So when you pick up a Chinese book or newspaper, you must spend a few seconds trying to figure out which direction makes the most sense to read it.
Using numbers Here are the fundamental numbers:
Chinese numbers sound more pleasant and simpler than English ones. For example, 3 in Chinese is sān, which sounds more pleasant and simpler than the English “three”; 7 in Chinese is qī (pronounced “chee”), which sounds more pleasant and simpler than the English “seven.”
To pronounce English, you must learn that 11 is pronounced “eleven,” not “one one”; 30 is pronounced “thirty,” not “threety”. Chinese has no such pecularities. In Chinese, the number after “ten” is called “ten one” (shí yī). Then come “ten two” (shí èr) then “ten three” (shí sān) and so on, up to “ten nine” (shí jiŭ) Then come “two-ten” (èrshí), “two-ten one” (èrshí yī), “two-ten two” (èrshí èr), and so on. One hundred is yìbăi; two hundred is èrbăi; 235 is “two-hundred three-ten five” (èrbăi sānshí wŭ).
If a number’s next-to-final digit is zero, say “zero” (líng). For example, if you want to say 205, don’t say just “two-hundred five”: say “two-hundred zero five” (èrbăi líng wŭ). If you forget to say the “zero” and say just “two-hundred five” (èrbăi wŭ), your listener will assume you mean the slang for 250.
For the digit 2, the Chinese use èr or liăng. Choose èr when you’re counting (1, 2, 3, etc.) and for 20 (èrshí) and 200 (èrbăi); choose liăng instead for 2000 (liăngqiān), 20000 (liăngwàn), and when the number modifies a noun (“2 people”).
In Chinese you don’t have to learn the names of the 12 months, since they have no names: the Chinese just say “#1 month” (yī yuè), “#2 month” (èr yuè), etc.
You don’t have to learn the names of the 7 days of the week, because they have no names either (except Sunday): the Chinese just say “week’s #1” for Monday (zhōu yī), “week’s #2” for Tuesday (zhōu èr), etc. For Sunday, say “week’s sun” (zhōu rì).
For the word “week,” instead of saying zhōu (which literally means “circumference”), some Chinese folks substitute a more ancient word, xīngqī (which literally means “star period”).
Important stuff first In Chinese, you talk about important stuff before talking about details. For example, when giving a date, you say the year then the month then the date. When giving a person’s name, you say the person’s family (which is usually one syllable, such as Chén) then the cute name the mother gave that person (which is usually two syllables, such as Mínglì). For example, China’s most famous leader was Máo Zédōng: his family’s name was Máo, his given name was Zédōng.
Grammar & style In English, to make a word plural you must typically add “s,” but some words are irregular: the plural of “mouse” is “mice.” The Chinese don’t bother pluralizing: in Chinese, the word for “restaurant” is the same as the word for “restaurants.” So in Chinese, instead of saying “I own 5 restaurants,” you say “I own 5 of restaurant.” The only exception is for groups of people: the plural of “friend” is “friend group”; the plural of “student” is “student group”; the plural of “child” is “child group.” (The Chinese word for “group” is men.)
In English, you have to say “the” or “a” or “some” before most nouns. There are no Chinese words for “the” or “a” or “some.” So in Chinese, instead of saying “I see the car” or “I see a car”, you say just “I see car.” If you want to emphasize that you see just “a” car, not many cars, you can say “I see one of car”: the Chinese say “one” (yī) instead of “a”.
In English, you must learn how to conjugate verbs: “I eat,” “he eats”, “I ate”, “I have eaten,” “I am eating,” “I will eat.” The Chinese never conjugate; they say “I eat,” “he eat,” “I yesterday eat,” “I tomorrow eat.”
To say just “I ate” without bothering to specify which day, a Chinese person says “I eat already.” That’s easy to say, since the Chinese word for “already” is short: le. So to turn any present sentence into a past-tense sentence, just add le at the end.
If you’re telling a story, don’t bother putting le at the end of each sentence: just tell the story in the present tense. (“I yesterday eat. Then I drink. Then I sleep.”)
Here’s another popular shortcut: instead of saying “I will buy an apple,” the Chinese just nod and say “buy apple”: the “I” and “will” are unspoken and understood.
In English, you must worry about whether to say “he,” “she,” or “it” — and hope you’re not accused of being sexist! In Chinese, you don’t have to worry, because “he,” “she,” and “it” are all pronounced the same: tā.
To ask a question in English, you must change the word order: “He is going to Shanghai” becomes “Is he going to Shanghai?” In Chinese, you create a question more simply, by just putting “huh?” at the end of the sentence: “He go Shanghai” becomes “He go Shanghai huh?” The Chinese word for “huh?” is ma. It serves the same purpose as the Canadian “eh?” (Canadians say, “He’s going to Shanghai, eh?”)
A more emphatic Chinese way to ask a question is to say the verb twice, with “not” in between, like this: “He go, not go, Shanghai?” (The Chinese word for “not” is bù.)
Chinese has no word for “yes” or “no.” To reply to the question “You go Shanghai huh?” just repeat the verb: say “go” (while nodding your head) or “not go” (while shaking your head). To reply to the question “He is American huh?” just repeat the verb: say “is” (shì) or “not is,” which would be bù shì; but the Chinese don’t like to say “bù” before a verb having the 4th tone, so the Chinese change “bù” to “bú” in that situation and say “bú shì.” Since “bú shì” sounds like “bullshit,” American tourists think Chinese people often talk about bullshit.
When Chinese people are lazy, they don’t bother saying the verb after bù: they say just bù, which means “not” and acts as “no.”
American tourists think Chinese people are like ghosts, who always say “boo!”
Though you make the typical Chinese verb negative by putting bù (or bú) before it, here’s a big exception: to make the verb “have” (yŏu) be negative, say méi instead of bù, like this: méi yŏu (which means “not have” or “haven’t”). For example, if somebody asks whether you have something (or whether you have ever done something), reply by saying “have” (yŏu) or “haven’t” (méi yŏu). Chinese people often say they “haven’t” done something; they often say méi yŏu. Since “méi yŏu” sounds like “mayo” (which is American slang for “mayonnaise”), American tourists think Chinese people often talk about mayonnaise.
Another way to indicate yes is to say “correct” (which in Chinese is duì). So Chinese often reply to questions by saying shì (“is” or “yes”), bú shì (“not is” or “no”), bù (“not” or “no”), yŏu (“have”), méi yŏu (“not have” or “haven’t”), and duì (“certainly”).
The Chinese say “please” (qĭng) and “thank you” (xièxie) less than Americans. If you use them too much, you’ll be laughed at for being as hopelessly formal as a British butler. Instead of saying a formal “thank you,” Chinese people prefer to be more thoughtful and emotional. When treated to a meal, a Chinese person shows appreciation by saying it was delicious (“good eat extremely,” hăo chī jíle); when done a favor, a Chinese person apologizes for having put the generous person to so much trouble (“trouble you already,” máfan nĭ le).
Names for countries China considers itself to be the center of the universe, so it calls itself the “center country” (Zōngguó). Since the Chinese word for “person” is rén, a Chinese person is called a “center-country person” (Zōngguó rén). The Chinese language (with its written characters) is called “center writing” (Zōngwen).
To a Chinese ear, “England” sounds like Yīngguó (“flower country”), so that’s what the Chinese call England. A British person is called a Yīngguó rén (“flower-country person”); the English language is called Yīngwen (“flower writing”).
To a Chinese ear, “America” sounds like “Mayka” (if you ignore the unaccented syllables), so the Chinese call the U.S. Mĕiguó (“beautiful country”); an American person is called a Mĕiguó rén (“beautiful-country person”). To say “I am an American,” say wŏ shì Mĕiguó rén (“I is beautiful-country person”).
Vocabulary To speak Chinese well, you must learn many Chinese words. Here are the most popular words and phrases for beginners and tourists. For each phrase, I give the English, then the Chinglish (Chinese way of handling the English), then the actual Chinese pinyin:
Dialects I’ve been explaining mainland China’s official pronunciation, called Mandarin, which is especially popular in the capital city (Beijing) and places nearby. But many far-away regions of China have their own dialects.
For example, Cantonese is the dialect spoken in Guangzhou (which used to be called Canton) and places nearby (such as Hong Kong and Macau). Cantonese write the same Chinese characters as Mandarin, but the pronunciation is so different that Cantonese people can’t understand Mandarin speakers — and Mandarin people can’t understand Cantonese speakers — unless they take courses. (Now the Chinese government requires all students to learn Mandarin.)
How different is Mandarin pronunciation from Cantonese? Very! For example, while Mandarin has 5 tones (high, rising, falling, dipping, and plain), Cantonese is supposed to have 7 (low, medium, high, low-rising-to-medium, medium-rising-to-high, high-falling-to-medium, and medium-falling-to-low).
Many Cantonese speakers are too lazy to do high-falling-to-medium; they replace it with a simple high instead, so they speak just 6 tones instead of 7. Other Cantonese speakers talk extra-musically: they produce 9 tones or even more.
The consonant and vowel sounds are different, too. For example, In Mandarin, the word for “I” or “me” is wŏ, but in Cantonese it’s ngo. In Mandarin, the word for “not” is bù, but in Cantonese it’s just the sound m. In Mandarin, each syllable ends with a vowel or n, ng, or r; in Cantonese, each syllable ends with a vowel or n, ng, m, k, p, or t (or a silent h that just means to use low tones).
Since Mandarin is so different from Cantonese, people in Hong Kong complain that Mandarin TV broadcasts to Hong Kong are as hopeless as “the chicken talking to the duck.” To add to the confusion, Cantonese speakers have developed many local slang expressions and local characters that Mandarin folks don’t understand.
In the United States, Chinese restaurant menus show “Cantonese pinyin” names for the dishes. In China, most people speak Mandarin instead; they won’t understand if you ask for food by Cantonese names such as “Lo mein,” “Moo shi,” and “Chow foon.”
Chinglish Chinese grammar is much simpler than English, since Chinese has no plurals, no verb conjugations, no “the,” and no “she”.
When Chinese try to speak English, they often get confused by English grammar and vocabulary and therefore speak Chinese-confused English, called Chinglish.
In China, many signs are written in Chinglish. When you see a sign written in Chinglish, you can have fun guessing what it means. My friends and I saw these examples:
We saw this sign —
We saw this sign —
which means “ATM.”
We saw this sign —
At a temple, signs said:
To have fun, read those Chinglish signs to your friends and see whether they can guess what the signs mean.
This Chinglish sign is written clearly but too candidly:
So are these signs in a Gynecology & Obstetrics Department:
So are these lawn signs:
So is this sign trying to say “automatic-flush toilets”:
So is the comment on an ice-cream wrapper:
When writing Chinese characters, the Chinese don’t put spaces between their words, and they don’t understand why Americans bother, so the Chinese insert spaces into English carelessly. For example, one of China’s biggest banks has a huge sign saying:
Many Chinese signs make the mistake of putting a space before ’s, like this:
Modern Chinese is written left-to-right (like English), but
classic Chinese was written right-to-left (like Hebrew). Chinese signs can be
written in either direction. Some Chinese
sign-makers forget that English can’t be written right-to-left. For example, look at this sign:
Signs by big international corporations usually have correct English. Chinglish errors occur mostly on signs written by the Chinese government and its state-owned companies, which have poorly paid employees who visited the West never or just briefly. You can find more examples of Chinglish signs at www.chinglish.com (click “Photoblog”) and www.engrish.com (which includes botched English from China and other Asian countries).
China tried to fix those signs, so tourists wouldn’t make fun of China during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. For details about that effort, read Mei Fong’s article on The Wall Street Journal’s front page (on February 5, 2007).
Piracy In China, most CD’s containing music or computer programs are illegal copies. At first glance, the copies look genuine, but when you stare at them more closely you’ll see English words misspelled.
For example, the jacket of a pirated Michael Jackson CD says it includes these songs: “You are not along,” “Shake your boby,” “Sckeam,” and “Fam.” (It means “You are not alone,” “Shake your body,” “Scream,” and “Jam.”)
The world’s first humans began in Africa 14 million years ago, where they were black. Some of those migrated north to the Middle East, where they turned lighter. Then some migrated farther north to Europe (where they turned white), while others migrated to India and then China (where they turned yellow) and then to Alaska and the rest of the Americas (where they turned red).
Xia dynasty At first, China’s inhabitants were just a bunch of disorganized hunters and farmers (starting half a million years ago), but in 2200 B.C. a kingdom was finally established. The king’s family name was Xia. His kingdom, called the Xia dynasty, was ruled by him and later by his descendents.
Shang dynasty In 1750 B.C., a rebel leader overthrew the Xia dynasty. His family name was Shang. He started the Shang dynasty. During the Shang dynasty, the Chinese people became excellent at working in bronze, and they also began to write more (often by carving characters into pig bones).
During the Shang dynasty, whenever a king would die, he’d be buried with his possessions and more than 100 slaves, who were thrown in his burial pit while they were alive or after being beheaded. (Later dynasties were kinder and threw in terra cotta statues of slaves instead of real people.)
During the Shang dynasty, whenever an important building was finished, the building would be consecrated by sacrificing some humans. Unlike other dynasties, the Shang dynasty used this strange rule: whenever a king died, the next king would be the dead king’s brother (not son); and if there were no more brothers left, the kingship would pass to dead king’s cousin (the king’s mother’s oldest nephew).
Zhou dynasty The last Shang king, who was ridiculously mean, was overthrown in 1100 B.C. by a chieftain from the frontier tribe called Zhou. That chieftain began the Zhou dynasty. It was more normal than the Shang dynasty: it used father-to-son succession and it avoided human sacrifice. In 771 B.C., the Zhou dynasty’s capital was sacked by barbarians, and king was killed. The king’s relatives fled to the east, where they set up a new capital and continued the Zhou dynasty.
During the Zhou dynasty, 3 conflicting philosophies arose:
Even today, Chinese people are confused about which of those 3 philosophies to follow — whether to be kind, tough, or mysterious — and many heartaches are caused by modern Chinese governments who switch erratically among those 3 philosophies.
Toward the end of the Zhou dynasty, the Zhou controlled just the eastern part of China and was fighting other states in battles that grew gigantic, with 500,000 soldiers on each side.
Qin dynasty In 221 B.C., the western frontier state called Qin finished winning against all rivals (mainly because Qin had lots of iron to make iron weapons). That began the Qin dynasty. (The English name “China” means “Qin’s country.”)
The Qin’s king, Qin Shihuangdi, called himself an “emperor” (a title previously used just for mythological gods). He followed the advice of Legalists: he was tough, killed (or banished) all Confucian scholars who disagreed with the Legalists, burned Confucian books (and most other books too, keeping just books about medicine, pharmacy, agriculture, and divination), and had a policy of executing generals who showed up late for maneuvers. He created the Great Wall by combining together little walls that the warring states had created for themselves (though his version of the Great Wall was still made of just packed earth; later dynasties turned it into brick). To control what had become a big country, he divided it into 36 provinces, each headed by an official who had to report directly to him.
That emperor died in 210 B.C.
Han dynasty Shortly after Qin Shihangdi’s death, a soldier bringing in draftees was getting delayed by rain. He feared getting executed for tardiness along with his draftees, so the whole group of them decided to revolt. Those revolutionaries got executed, but the turmoil they fomented led to new leadership in 206 B.C.: the Han dynasty, which is considered China’s best dynasty. (Most people in modern China proudly claim they are “Han Chinese.”) During the Han dynasty, China gained many improvements:
The Han dynasty ruled until 220 A.D. — except for a brief interruption by a reformer named Wang Mang. (He had worked in the royal palace and was appointed “emperor” by the Han household from 8 A.D. until his death in 25 A.D.)
In 220 A.D., the Han dynasty fell apart. Here’s why:
350 years of confusion After the Han dynasty fell, China got 350 years of fighting and confusion, during which the Han people kept moving south, while barbarians kept moving into China from the north and assimilated themselves into the northern population. Also during that period, Buddhism (which had come from India) became more popular and started including features from Daoism.
Post-Han dynasties Finally, China got major dynasties:
The Sui dynasty (589-618) unified China again. This dynasty was based in the north (and therefore partly barbarian).
The Tang dynasty (618-907) was almost as good as the Han. It was based in the north (and so partly barbarian). During the Tang dynasty, block printing was invented, which helped spread the written word to the masses.
The Song dynasty (960-1279) was almost as good as the Han and the Tang. During the Song dynasty, use of the printing press spread, and better ways were invented to grow and harvest rice. (One of the tricks was to use a fast-growing kind of rice from Vietnam.) Before the Song dynasty, Chinese people had just two ways to get rich & famous (be in the government or own land), but during the Song dynasty a third rich-and-famous class was formed: merchants.
Unfortunately, the Song rice system worked so well that future dynasties saw no need to improve it further, no need to do more research, no need to industrialize, and China’s progress started to fall behind Europe’s.
The Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) was established by Mongolian barbarian horsemen who attacked from the north. The Yuan dynasty was actually a puppet government controlled by the Mongolian Supreme Leader, Kublai Khan (Genghis Khan’s grandson). The Mongolians were kind enough to leave Chinese culture intact and not destroy it.
Two Italian brothers, Niccolo & Matteo Polo, were the first Europeans to travel across Asia, where they met Kublai Khan in China, who gave them a letter to take back to the Pope, saying China wanted the Pope to send teachers. On their second trip to China, they took a letter from the Pope (along with two missionaries who chickened out before reaching China), and they also took along Niccolo’s son, Marco Polo, who impressed Kublai Khan and became Kublai Khan’s advisor and a governor of big provinces. After 20 years in China, Marco Polo returned to Italy and wrote a book telling Europeans how great China was.
Unfortunately, the paragraph you’ve just read might be full of lies and exaggerations, since our only source of info about the Polo family is Marco Polo’s book, which historians don’t completely believe, because:
Regardless of its truthfulness, his book had a big effect on Europe: it made Europeans curious about China.
But land travel from Europe to China became endangered by bandits in-between, so Europeans started searching for a way to reach China by sea. (Later, that searching made Columbus accidentally discover America.)
The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) was started by a rebellious army officer (who was Han Chinese and had previously been a peasant and a Buddhist monk), so it was a true Chinese empire (that threw the Mongolian leaders out). Life during the Ming dynasty was peaceful — except that when that first Ming emperor discovered his prime minister was plotting against him, he beheaded the prime minister and the prime minister’s family and 40,000 other people too.
The Qing dynasty (1644-1911) was run by Manchurian barbarians who attacked from the North, so it was disliked.
During the Qing dynasty, China was approached by Westerners (the Portuguese then the Spanish, British, French, Germans, Russians, and Americans), who wanted to buy Chinese tea, silk, and porcelain. But the Qing dynasty didn’t want to buy much from Westerners in return, so trade was stifled.
British traders solved the problem by encouraging people in the Chinese city of Guangzhou to buy raw cotton and opium that the British shipped from British-controlled India. Opium was illegal in China, but the British got it in by using Chinese smugglers and corrupt officials.
The Qing dynasty sent a commissioner to Guangzhou to stop the illegal opium traffic. He detained all foreigners and destroyed 20,000 chests of British opium. The British retaliated by starting the Opium War in 1839. China was surprised at the strength of the British navy and lost the war in 1842 to Britain, which won many concessions from China, including the entire island of Hong Kong, plus tax breaks and freedom from having to obey any Chinese laws. That made the Chinese more curious about Western thought, so Chinese scholars started studying Western thinking.
After several more revolts, famines, and foreign takeovers of China’s puppets (the French took over South Vietnam and Cambodia, the British took over Burma and Kowloon, the Russians took over Turkestan, and the Japanese took over Taiwan and Korea), the Qing dynasty finally was overthrown by dissidents in 1911. It was the last dynasty!
Republics In 1912, a republic was formed, whose presidents would be chosen by legislatures instead of by heredity. The first president was Dr. Sun Yat-sen (“Sun Yixian” in pinyin), who was born in China but grew up in Hawaii and had also been a physician in Hong Kong and lived in Japan & the United States and raised donations from Chinese people around the world. Nearly everybody liked him, and he’s called “The Father of Modern China.”.
But a military leader, Yuan Shikai, wanted to be president too. To prevent civil war, Dr. Sun agreed to step down and let Yuan Shikai be the leader.
But Yuan Shikai turned out to be a despot. He changed the constitution to give himself more power. Dr. Sun’s friend, Song Jiaoren, created a political party (called the Nationalists or National People’s Party or Guomindang or Kuomintang or KMT), which campaigned against Yuan Shikai and won most of the seats in the legislature. Yuan Shikai responded by having Song Jiaoren and several pro-KMT generals all be assassinated. Then 7 provinces rebelled against Yuan Shikai, but he suppressed the rebellion. Scared, the legislature agreed to confirm Yuan Shikai as president. Then he outlawed the KMT and removed all its members from the legislature. Then he suspended the whole legislature and forced onto China a new constitution that made him president for life. Then he decided to become a monarch. Then everybody revolted against him, but before they could lynch him he died of natural causes in 1916.
Then China broke apart: regional warlords fought each other. In 1919, Dr. Sun reestablished the KMT, and in 1921 the KMT controlled southern China, but warlords still controlled northern China (and Beijing). Dr. Sun tried to get help from Western countries, but they ignored him, so he turned to the Soviet Union, which agreed to help his KMT but also help a smaller party, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Soviet Union started trying to convince those two parties to merge.
In 1923, Dr. Sun’s lieutenant, Chiang Kai-shek (“Jiang Jieshi” in pinyin), went to Moscow for military training. When he returned to China, he set up a military academy in China.
In 1925, Dr. Sun died of cancer. Then Chiang Kai-shek started battling the northern warlords and became the KMT’s leader. In 1926, he conquered half of China.
But after thwarting a kidnapping attempt against him, he got nervous about Communists, dismissed his Soviet advisors, and prevented Communists from holding any KMT leadership positions. Then he declared Communist membership to be a crime punishable by death, and he started killing the Communists. One Communist who managed to escape the carnage was Mao Zedong (who’d been a peasant, student, librarian, and poet). He and other communists fled west. At that point, China had 3 capitals: Beijing (in the north, controlled by warlords), Nanjing (in the southeast, controlled by the KMT), and Wuhan (in the central south, controlled by the Communists). In 1928, the KMT conquered Beijing. In 1934, the KMT tried to conquer to Communists also, but the Communists escaped by fleeing to the west then north then east, traveling a total of about 6,000 miles, which took about a year, mainly under Mao Zedong’s leadership; that’s called “The Long March.” During all that, the Communists developed a reputation for being nice (especially to peasants), while the KMT were considered mean.
Meanwhile, the Japanese started invading China (Manchuria in 1931, Shanghai in 1932, and the rest of China in 1937). Eventually, the Japanese killed 20 million Chinese people (and raped many Chinese women).
Chiang Kai-shek still wanted to concentrate on fighting the Communists, but his KMT associates finally convinced him to fight the Japanese instead. The Communists fought the Japanese also.
At the end of World War 2, the Japanese lost, and so did the KMT: the Communist Party emerged the winner for the hearts, minds, and bodies of the Chinese. Chiang Kai-shek and his KMT fled to the island of Taiwan, where he became Taiwan’s leader. (Under KMT leadership, Taiwan gradually improved. Now Taiwan’s a good, democratic country, full of freedom. It’s modern and financially successful. It’s particularly strong at manufacturing computers and other electronic devices.)
On October 1, 1949, the Communist leader (Mao Zedong) stood in Beijing and proclaimed that the mainland was now under Communist control and called the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It was indeed a republic, except that just members of the Communist Party could run for office.
The PRC’s leaders divided into two groups: the leftists versus the rightists:
Mao tended to be a leftist (because of his peasant background), and his wife was even more leftist. The leftists tried many extreme experiments, such as these:
Some of those policies had disastrous results. For example, China is now short of trees, so China has bad air, full of dust and pollution. China’s commune experiment was unsuccessful and caused a famine that killed 30 million Chinese people. (Hey, that’s a lot of deaths: 10,000 times as many as were killed in the September 11th attacks that Americans got so upset about. To see anything happen on a really big scale, you gotta go to China!)
The leftists decided that big projects should be run by socialists, not technologists. They said “Better Red than Expert.” As a result, many projects failed, and many factories produced goods that had poor quality.
Mao died in 1976.
In 1978, a rightist named Deng Xiaoping gained control. Many state-run businesses were privatized. (Unfortunately, some of those businesses then went bankrupt and stopped paying the pensions that were due to retirees, who suddenly became destitute.)
Deng let technologists and capitalists run projects, regardless of ideology. He said:
He also said it’s okay to let some people get rich. He even said:
Deng died in 1997. After him came his protégé, Jiang Zemin, then the current leader, Hu Jintao, who’ve both continued Deng’s rightist policies.
Now Chinese citizens are allowed to criticize the Chinese government — but permissible criticism is limited to attacking screw-ups (corrupt bribed officials, inefficiency, and inertia), not the Communist system itself.
China’s new worry is that China’s economic boom hasn’t benefited the peasants yet, and the income gap between China’s rich and China’s poor has widened. For example, half of the Chinese people are poor peasants who don’t have any electricity yet, not even for light bulbs, while many of China’s rich buy air conditioners and cars. In cities, rich people live in condos in new high rises constructed by companies whose rich investors haven’t yet paid the migrant laborers who actually shouldered the work. Those migrants are dirt poor, still waiting for the pay they were promised but never received. In some cities, the electric and water companies haven’t been beefed up enough yet to handle all the new factories and high-rise apartments, so people suffer from rationing and brownouts. Half of all bank loans aren’t repaid on time. In March 2004, Hu Jintao gave a speech in which he promised to solve those problems by changing the tax rates (to favor the poor) and handing out fewer private construction permits, until the infrastructure has time to catch up. He also promised to make factories obey China’s minimum-wage law, which most companies have ignored, and that’s why China’s goods have been so cheap!
Frontline In the U.S., public television’s Frontline showed a documentary film about how life in China changed dramatically, with some folks becoming lucky capitalists and others becoming ill beggars. The documentary tracked the lives of several people from different walks of life, in different parts of China, from 1998 (when the Chinese government decided to become more capitalist) to 2002. The documentary had surprisingly sad endings:
Constitution Since China is supposed to be a “republic,” it needed a constitution. China’s constitution is a bizarre mix of leftist and rightist thinking.
The Communist Party is the only party mentioned in the constitution, and the constitution’s Article 1 calls China a “democratic dictatorship.” Here’s the full text of Article 1 (in its final version, as revised in 1982):
Article 34 says you’re guaranteed the right to vote — unless the government doesn’t want you to:
Article 36 gives you freedom of religion — unless your religion causes protests or seems physically or mentally “unhealthy” or is controlled by a foreigner, such as the Pope:
Article 40 protects your privacy — except when the government wishes to censor you:
So long As you can see, Chinese history is quite long. Chinese centralized government (the first dynasty) began in 2200 B.C., which was about 4200 years ago. By contrast, U.S. centralized government (declared by the Declaration of Independence) began in 1776, which was about 230 years ago. That makes “China” nearly 20 times as old as the “United States”! Compared to age-old China, the U.S. is just a baby country, too young to have any serious history yet.
A Chinese friend attended a party in the U.S. and heard a guest say she was getting a Ph.D. in U.S. history. He laughed and said, “How can you get a Ph.D. in U.S. history? The U.S. has no history!”
Chinese people love to watch, on Chinese TV, dramas about Chinese history, especially the intrigues of the emperors and the women who lived with them. They’re much more fascinating than U.S. battles between cowboys and Indians (whoops, I mean “Native Americans”).
What to read For a funny romp through Chinese history, read “Condensed China” at:
Then grab more details by reading “History of China” at:
The full Chinese constitution has 138 articles plus 13 amendments. You can read them (except the 10 new amendments added in 2004) on the Internet in English at:
My trip to China
I’ve always been curious about Chinese language and culture. When I lived in Boston, I loved to visit Boston’s Chinatown. I even joined some Chinese clubs. Six years ago, I married a Chinese immigrant, whose nickname is “Donna.” In a section of this book called “Donna’s comments,” you can read her comments about China, the United States, and me.
Though I married Donna, I never had a chance to visit China or her relatives — until this year. What a treat! Visiting China was eye-opening fun!
I told Donna I wanted to meet her relatives and also see how Chinese people live, rather than just hit tourist spots. So she let me visit Chinese homes, take walks with her friends, and go shopping with them for everyday needs.
China is too huge to be seen completely, and my time was limited to 2 weeks (so I could return to New Hampshire and resume answering the endless phone calls about life and computers). I had to adopt this strict schedule: in January 2004, I flew into the capital (Beijing), then quickly flew to Chengdu (a beautiful city in Sichuan province), then got driven to her home town, Jiangyou (2 hours north of Chengdu), where I spent 9 days (with side trips to nearby towns), Then I retraced my steps back to Chengdu (where I lingered 2 days), Beijing (2 more days), and the U.S., so the whole experience lasted 15 days (including transportation).
Beijing’s become quite westernized. The first time I saw it, it looked like an American city (Washington D.C. or the Queens part of New York City), except its signs were in Chinese.
Chengdu has more Asian character but is also partly westernized. Jiangyou is much smaller and hasn’t been westernized as much yet, so I found it the most fascinating, the most “authentic,” the most memorable.
Here are my comments. Most are about Jiangyou, but some apply to the other cities too.…
China’s 3 moods
China is dominated by 3 moods: a rush to westernize, a willingness to bend, and quiet.
Rush to westernize For many centuries, China was isolated from western culture. Now China is rushing to catch up. China is rushing to grab ideas, languages, appliances, cars, language, music, software, the Internet, consumer goods, brands, lifestyles, ideas, and everything else, from the U.S. and Europe (with some help from Japan). But while rushing to do all that, the Chinese take short cuts, which result in poor workmanship and lack of finesse. My summary of China in 2004 is this:
Willingness to bend To understand China, look at its trees. Many of China’s trees have branches that bend wildly, unlike American and German trees, whose branches are boringly straight. China’s culture is inspired by Chinese trees: the culture bends.
For example, Chinese characters have strokes that bend: there are no simple, straight strokes. Traditional Chinese buildings have roofs that are slanted (pitched), but they bend slightly up at the edges and bend up even more at the corners, to form dramatic curves. Chinese people love to bend the rules: they interpret every rule and law “flexibly.”
If a person creates anything exactly straight or acts properly straight-arrow, the Chinese would consider that person too Germanically rigid, an uncultured goose-stepping Nazi asshole, though Western technology keeps trying to impose that requirement.
Quiet Chinese people tend to act quietly, mysteriously.
The love of mystery comes from Daoism. The need to act quietly — tactfully — stems from many centuries of fearing the wrath of Chinese government leaders and officials: if you open your mouth, you might get beheaded, figuratively or literally. Even now, the Chinese government accepts no criticism of its system. Since Chinese households have traditionally been large (including grandparents, grandkids, and other relatives) and close-knit — and since friendships are also tightly woven and are needed to get job references — speaking your mind can get you booed by many generations of people and the whole town and make you become a worthless person.
So Chinese kids still learn this rule: you’d better shut up!
How to travel
Traveling to and through China is an adventure.
Get your visa If you’re an American who wants to visit China, you must get an American passport (from the U.S. government) and a Chinese visa (from the Chinese government).
Be careful what you say on your visa application! On mine, I made the mistake of saying my occupation was “publisher and author of computer books.” I should have left out the word “author,” since the Chinese government doesn’t trust “authors.” The Chinese consulate phoned my wife and grilled her about me, with questions such as:
They’re paranoid about foreign journalists interviewing real Chinese citizens, especially in Tibet!
Donna said I was just a dumb computer guy (which was true at that time). The consulate said that was okay. But I might not be allowed to return to China in the future.
After America’s September 11th tragedy, the U.S. government got meaner about foreigners visiting the U.S., so the Chinese government got meaner about Americans visiting China: the visa fee has been raised, and you’re not allowed to get your visa by mail — you must personally walk into the Chinese consulate (or bribe a friend or travel agent to walk in for you).
Beijing-airport tax Whenever you want to fly out of Beijing airport (to the U.S. or other countries or other Chinese cities), you must get a ticket but then, afterwards, stand in a special separate line to pay an airport-construction departure tax.
If your travel agent forgot to mention the airport-construction departure tax, or you were duped into thinking your ticket includes all taxes, tough luck! No ticket sold in the U.S. or China or anywhere else ever includes that airport-construction departure tax: you must go stand in the tax line and make sure you haven’t spent all your money already — or you won’t get home!
Warning: the tax is very high and depends on where you’re going.
7 road vehicles Chinese cities (such as Beijing, Chengdu, and Jiangyou) all have modern streets, like U.S. cities.
In Jiangyou, you commonly see 7 kinds of vehicles: bicycles, tricycles, motorcycles, taxis, cars, vans, and buses. (Trucks and trains are rare.)
The typical bicycle has a just a tiny basket in front. It doesn’t hold much.
Tricycles come in two forms.
Most motorcycles resemble the ones in the U.S. and Japan.
Taxis, cars, and vans are slightly smaller than the ones in the U.S., because most Chinese people are short and thin and have less money. (If you’re 6 feet tall, you’ll need to duck.) 10 years ago, most of China’s cars were made by Volkswagen, and many of them are still on the streets, but newer vehicles have a wide variety of brands, especially Changan (which is Chinese), Citroen (which is French), and Buick (which is American). Minivans are too expensive for normal use: they’re used mainly by government-employee car pools. Cars and minivans cost more in China than in the U.S.; for example, a minivan in China costs $60,000. (Most other goods cost slightly less in China than in the U.S.)
In Jiangyou, the buses have no doors. Instead, the bus’s doorway has strips of clear plastic hanging down from the ceiling; to enter the bus, you push the plastic strips aside. Most stores are the same way: no doors, just plastic strips to push aside. That’s because Jiangyou is in Sichuan province, which is always warm. (You’ll find more doors in Beijing, which is farther north.)
Besides the bicycles, tricycles, motorcycles, taxis, cars, vans, and buses, the streets also contain pedestrians.
How to drive Here’s how to drive a car, Jiangyou style:
Since Chinese drivers don’t leave much distance between themselves and other cars, crashes are common. When driving on the expressway from Chengdu to Jiangyou, I saw a 40-car pileup: the highway suddenly turned into a junkyard full of dented trucks, buses, minivans, BMW’s, and all other vehicles imaginable. Very impressive!
To encourage drivers to stay farther apart, expressways have signs showing what “50 meters apart” looks like and what “100 meters apart” looks like. But drivers ignore them.
Intersections Though Chinese drivers don’t take traffic lanes and distances seriously, they respect traffic lights. As in the U.S., red means “stop” and green means “go.” In the U.S., the red light is always above the green, but in cities such as Jiangyou the lights are mounted randomly: sometimes red above green, sometimes green above red, sometimes red left of green, sometimes green left of red. That confuses the colorblind. It also confuses tourists from America, since in America “red left of green” means “don’t go in the left lane but you can go in the right lane.” Traffic lights are usually polite: they show a countdown of how many seconds remain before the light changes.
That’s how traffic lights work, but they’re rare. Most small intersections have no lights. Most big intersections have rotaries instead. The typical rotary is huge (2 blocks wide), with a center that’s a grassy park full of strolling pedestrians (plus the elderly doing aerobic martial-arts exercises), who get into the park by playing a game of chicken with the cars. At night, the park’s grass looks so green that you’ll wonder how the Chinese got such amazing fertilizer, until you look more closely and see the trick: the grass is lit by floodlights that are tinted green.
Careless drivers At night, many cars turn on just dim parking lights or don’t turn on any lights at all. Seatbelts are usually ignored — even on expressways, where they’re theoretically required.
Expressways The typical expressway has 3 lanes in each direction. They’re labeled in Chinglish. For example, on the expressway from Chengdu to Jiangyou, the left lane is called the “overtaking lane”; the middle lane is called the “main lane”; the right lane, which is for breakdowns and other slowed traffic, is called the “parking lane.”
Atop the expressway’s tollbooths, you see a giant surprise: a huge, surprising billboard ad that’s hundreds of feet wide, so it stretches over all the lanes and all booths. Wow! U.S. highway departments would raise lots of money (and complaints) if they’d do the same and turn U.S. tollbooth roofs into billboards.
Ask for directions When you try to find your way through small cities (such as Jiangyou), you discover there are no available maps and no numbers on buildings. Sorry, guys: you must “act like a woman” and continually ask for directions from knowledgeable local folks (handsome policemen, taxi drivers, tricyclists, and neighbors).
Rural peasants often live in shacks. City folks usually live in apartments (rented apartments or condo apartments). In Jiangyou, for example, many huge condo complexes are being built fast; each complex holds thousands of people.
Cheap luxury Housing is cheap. For example, my wife (Donna) bought a brand new 3-bedroom condo apartment in Jiangyou for just $12,000. That price includes just bare cement walls and floors; she added $10,000 for appliances, furniture, and décor (with help from her brothers in choosing and installing it), making a total of $22,000. The result is drop-dead gorgeous, the kind of place that would cost a million dollars if it were in Manhattan on Park Avenue.
Her daughter (Mimi) bought an even more gorgeous condo apartment, also new, in a fancier city (Chengdu) for $20,000, plus $10,000 for appliances, furniture and décor (including the fee to the interior designer). That apartment has just 2 bedrooms, but the décor and location are superb.
Exteriors Most of China’s beauty is hidden: the insides of apartments can be gorgeous, but the outsides are drab. Many apartment buildings are just raw cement; others have the cement covered by a tile façade.
(Wood is rarely used in Chinese construction, since most trees were destroyed and burned during the “Great Leap Forward.” Brick is rare also.)
Some buildings have gigantic ornaments mounted on their roofs to make the buildings look taller, more impressive, and classy.
Stairs The typical apartment building is 7 stories high but has no elevator. If you live on the top floor, you need strong legs! One reason why Chinese people are thin is that they get lots of exercise running up and down stairs. (A few apartment buildings have elevators, but those buildings cost too much.)
Even in the nicest apartment buildings, the stairwells are disappointing. The stairs are just cement slabs, covered with dust instead of carpets, and the stairwell’s walls are gashed by people moving furniture in and out.
To save electricity, the stairwell lights are usually off. They’re supposed to turn themselves on when noise is detected, but they’re not sensitive enough, so they tend to stay off until you stomp hard on the stairs. As a result, you’ll see a lot of Chinese people stomping and hollering in stairwells at night, just to get the darn lights to turn on. That’s another example of how things in China “almost work.”
One reason why the stairwells are a mess is that nobody’s responsible for making them better. Condo dwellers pay almost no monthly maintenance fee, so almost no common-area maintenance gets done.
Ceilings Americans like to decorate apartment walls, but the Chinese prefer to decorate apartment ceilings instead.
For example, in Donna’s Jiangyou apartment, the living-room ceiling has edges hiding dozens of recessed colored lights. They’re turned on mainly to celebrate holidays and amuse visitors. Many restaurants use those same kinds of lights.
Many restaurants also hang red paper Chinese lanterns from the ceiling, since red is the Chinese color for happiness. (Americans seeing red think of cherries or blood, but the Chinese think of cheer instead.)
Walls Chinese wall decorations are plain: just a few photos or simple art.
Floors For flooring, you’ll see beautiful woods, tiles, and throw rugs, but no wall-to-wall carpeting.
Dirty shoes Since the stairwells and streets are so dusty, the Chinese typically take off their shoes when entering homes or apartments. The homeowner tries to lend everybody slippers.
If a big crowd of visitors enters the home, there might not be enough slippers to fit everybody, so people try this alternative: when they enter the home, they put blue plastic bags over their shoes, then walk in the bagged shoes. The bags act as galoshes but look ugly, like Wal-Mart shopping bags. To a toddler looking up at the crowd, the people look like gigantic carrots sprouting from shopping bags that are hopping across the floor.
Where’s the toilet? If you’re an American visiting a typical Chinese home, your biggest culture shock will be when you visit the bathroom: there’s no toilet to sit on. Instead, there’s just a hole in the floor: you piss or shit in the hole (while squatting), then push a flush button on the wall.
The hole’s made of porcelain and includes a long shitting area (so you can’t miss). It looks like a urinal that fell over and sunk into the floor.
Since you must squat rather than sit, the typical Chinese bathroom contains no magazines to read.
Just the most westernized homes (such as Donna’s and Mimi’s) have sitting toilets. They require you to flush twice (press the left button and also the right button).
Where’s the bathtub? The typical Chinese home has no bathtub. When you take a shower, there’s no tub and little or no curtain, so the whole bathroom floor gets wet. That’s why the typical Chinese bathroom floor has a gigantic grated drain hole, plus a mop to help you push water into that hole.
In Donna’s apartment, which is luxurious, the bathroom actually includes a shower stall, with a sliding door and its own drain! That stall is quite fancy, with water squirting you from the stall’s sides, the stall’s roof, and the stall’s hand-held hose. Whee — it’s fun! The stall looks like a Jacuzzi that was tilted on its side to stand upright. It even includes a ledge to rest your foot on while the foot is washed. Like most other things in China, when that shower stall was first installed it failed — the hot water turned cold after about 10 seconds — but her brothers grabbed their wrenches and fixed the plumbing themselves, rather than go through the trouble of yelling at the “professional” plumbers they’d hired to construct the bathroom.
Hot water In China, hot water can be temperamental because the typical home has no hot-water tank.
Instead, the apartment’s hot-water heater is tankless, gas-fired, and hides in the kitchen. When you turn on a hot-water faucet anywhere in the apartment, the heater senses the drop in water pressure and turns itself on, instantly heating the water passing through the heater’s pipe.
If two people try using hot water at the same time, the heater is usually inadequate.
Hot air To heat the air in winter, Beijing (which is cold) uses American-style piped heat.
Sichuan (which is warm like Atlanta) uses big electric space heaters instead, which are stashed in corners or mounted on walls. In the summer, those space heaters act as air conditioners: they have secret pipes to the outside, to the blow heat out.
Windows Many apartments have luxurious big windows (which Americans call “picture windows”).
But like most other things in China, those beautiful windows are made cheaply: just single-pane. They offer little insulation. Especially in Sichuan’s winter, they collect so much dew that they look like somebody dumped a bucket of oil on them: they’re too blurry to see through, until the dew evaporates in the afternoon.
Cheap workmanship Here are other examples of cheap workmanship I’ve seen in new products:
Appliances The Chinese homes I visited in Sichuan typically had a big T.V. screen, a CD player, a DVD player, nice furniture, and a washing machine. But you get no clothes dryer, so you must hang the clothes somewhere (a room, patio, or porch) and wait for them to dry.
There are two kinds of washing machine: the newest kind (called “automatic”) resembles American kinds, but a cheaper kind (called “semi-automatic”) is still popular and works like this:
You get no “dishwasher” machine, but upper-income folks (like Mimi) have the next best thing: a “dish dryer” (which looks like a microwave oven).
Light switches The typical American light switch looks male: it’s a prick that sticks out of the wall. The typical Chinese light switch looks female instead: it’s a rounded button (which you press or rock).
In a Chinese bathroom, the switches are covered by a clear plastic shell that keeps humidity out of the electronics. To access those switches, lift the shell first.
Water Though China’s tap water has improved, the Chinese still don’t trust it, so they boil it before drinking. Then they drink it warm, or wait for it to cool, or make it cool faster by refrigerating it.
Protective ornaments Where the hallway meets the living room, the wall’s protruding corners are covered with dark-wood protective ornaments, so if you accidentally bump into the corner, you’ll be banging those protectors instead of wrecking the wall.
Hotel frugality When we visited Beijing, Donna treated me to a “4-star international hotel.” (It was called “international” because it included a bathtub.) It used two tricks to discourage us from being wasteful:
China still has many small shops but now also has huge department stores, many stories high, new and chic, full of luxurious high fashion and cosmetics from around the world.
Jiangyou’s main department store has two sneaky tricks for keeping customers in the store:
Discounts are advertised differently than in the U.S.: instead of a sign saying “30% off,” you’ll see a Chinese sign saying just “7,” which means “you pay 70% of list price.” As you walk through the store, you’ll notice that some racks of clothes say “7,” while others say “6” (meaning you pay 60% of list price) or “5” (meaning you pay 50% of list price).
Though a department store looks like just a huge single store, financially it resembles a mall: each part of each aisle has its own salesperson, who rents space from the store. To buy an item, you must first hand the item to the salesperson, who scribbles a purchase order for you; then you hand the purchase order to a cashier (elsewhere on the floor) with your payment; then the cashier hands you a receipt, which you bring back to the salesperson, who finally hands you the item you bought.
To get food in China, you have several choices.
Supermarkets China’s supermarkets are like department stores: huge, several floors, including imports, with salespeople in every aisle to offer you advice about what to buy. Some supermarkets are even part of department stores.
If you want to buy fruit or fresh vegetables, don’t just bring them to the supermarket’s main checkout counter: instead, bring them first to the produce department desk’s own clerks, which weigh what you bought.
The Chinese government is trying to convince its citizens to drink more milk (for vitamins and calcium) — and so are milk’s marketers. Milk is not refrigerated; instead, you buy stay-fresh cartons (which you can keep at room temperature) or powdered milk (which you mix with water).
China offers many kinds of “milk,” just like the U.S. offers many kinds of “multivitamin pills.” When you walk down the milk aisle in Jiangyou’s supermarket, salespeople accost you and try to find the best kind of milk for you: for example, you can choose “milk for seniors” or “milk for infants.” In China, all stay-fresh cartons and most powdered milk is whole milk, with just slight modifications. Skim milk is available just as a powder and just if you look hard for it among all the other milks.
As in the U.S., China’s supermarkets include bakery and deli sections, which provide meals cheaper than restaurants.
Fast food In big cities (such as Beijing and Chengdu), you can easily find MacDonald’s (look for the arches) and Kentucky Fried Chicken (look for “KFC”). In Beijing, a Japanese fast-food chain competes against American junk by offering dishes based on rice instead of French fries.
In Beijing, the fast food places are so busy that it’s hard to find an empty table, so they hire ushers who look out for empty seats from departing customers and guide you to them.
Several Chinese companies have started their own fast-food chains. Jiangyou’s best (run by Donna’s sister’s friend) serves American fast food (hamburgers, hot dogs, and soft-serve ice cream) along with European pastry and Chinese-European loaves of bread (thick, dark, tasty, and tangy, with a touch of blueberry jam hiding inside). Instead of buying a hot-dog grill (and finding room for it), this place deep-fries the hot dogs, as if they were French fries.
Tables of fine food In a Chinese home, the typical table is a double-decker: it has a glass surface (to put your food and drinks on), with a wooden surface below (to put knickknacks, napkins, and other distractions).
Most tables are rectangular, in homes and restaurants; but restaurant tables for big groups (6 or more) are round, and the glass surface rotates (and is slightly smaller than the wooden part), so the glass surface acts as a lazy Suzan, holding the pots of food that everybody shares.
You don’t say “pass me the turtle soup”; instead, you just rotate the glass until the turtle soup comes to you. Then you get as much of it as you wish into your individual bowl, which is on the wooden surface.
By the way, about that turtle soup: it really has a dead turtle floating in the middle of it. You see the whole turtle, even its head. Chinese people prefer to eat meats and fish with the head still on, to prove that it’s freshly killed. In restaurants, if you want to order fish, you walk over to the fish tank, look at the fish swimming there, point at the fish you want to eat, and say “kill this one.” You’ll receive it, cooked, with the head still on.
In homes and restaurants, the Chinese eat family style: everybody shares the pots of food that have been cooked. There are no serving spoons: instead, everybody grabs his own spoon or chopsticks and digs into the pots, transferring as much as desired to his personal bowl.
Sharing food like that is unsanitary: if one person is ill and goes back for a second helping, everybody else at the table will eat his illness. On the other hand, the food itself is quite healthy: the food eaten in Sichuan contains lots of watery broth and vegetables, with very little saturated fat, and it’s hard to overeat, since the chopsticks and tiny spoons slow you down, though when rushing the Chinese take this shortcut: raise the personal bowl to the mouth, then shovel food from bowl to mouth as fast as possible, using chopsticks to help push it.
The typical American quickly chomps through a hamburger or a Big Mac. But in Sichuan, you’ll slowly manipulate watery noodles with weird things sitting on them; you won’t get fat.
The Chinese stay thin because of their wet diets, chopsticks, stairs, human-powered transportation, and realization that there’s more to life than just staring at TV screens and computer screens.
Guangzhou’s reputation Guangzhou is the pinyin name for “Canton,” the city that invented Cantonese food, and where people are willing to experiment by eating different kinds of animals. Chinese people say:
In China, you don’t have to tip waiters, taxi drivers, hotel maids, or anybody else. Tipping is never expected.
There’s no general sales tax, either: the price you’re quoted is the price you pay, not a penny more!
That’s why Chinese immigrants to the U.S. don’t tip — and don’t expect to be taxed — until Americans reeducate them.
Most Chinese office workers take a two-hour lunch break, from noon to 2PM. That long lunch is like a Mexican siesta: very practical on a hot day! During lunch, the workers go home if they live nearby.
To take that long break and still finish the day’s work, the workers come in early (8AM) and leave late (6PM). So the day consists of two 4-hour shifts: 8AM to noon, then 2PM to 6PM.
The U.S. has several time zones (Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific) plus Daylight Savings Time. China has none of that silliness: all of China is on the same clock, all year. All China is forced to use Beijing’s clock. Since Beijing is in eastern China, workers in western China must come to work in the dark before sunrise, though after work they enjoy lots of sunshine — like U.S. construction workers.
The Chinese have many ways to amuse themselves.
TV On Chinese TV, the mouths aren’t quite in synch with the sounds. That’s partly because some shows are secretly dubbed (Cantonese actors are dubbed into Mandarin) but also because China’s long-distance satellite-TV system isn’t accurate.
Historical dramas are particularly popular. The typical drama includes lots of talking (among the royalty and occasionally the peasants), interrupted by an occasional kung-fu skirmish. The talk-to-fight ratio reminds me of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” (the famous Clint Eastwood cowboy movie that was mostly talk but interrupted by an occasional fight).
As in the U.S., China TV includes ads. Many of the ads are for health (milk, pills, cosmetics, and toothpaste). The ads show Chinese characters supplemented by some pinyin, English characters, and Internet addresses.
The Chinese leave the TV on, for background sound, when socializing or eating meals. But some TV ads are inappropriate during mealtimes. Reacting to citizen complaints, the government promises that during dinnertime the TV will run fewer ads for feminine-hygiene products.
If you visit China and have a chance to watch TV, turn to channel 9 (CCTV-9). It’s all in English! It’s the international channel, to teach foreigners about China. It’s a pleasant mix of news, views, travelogues, and introductions to Chinese art, culture, language, and regional differences. I wish America had a channel like that to teach foreigners about America!
Chinese New Year Chinese New Year is based on the lunar calendar and comes in late January or early February, depending on the moon’s mood. It’s the country’s biggest holiday, and the whole country gets a week-long vacation, optimistically called Spring Festival (even though it’s really winter), during which the Chinese visit their relatives by fighting to get on overcrowded planes, trains, and buses.
During that week, TV presents the Spring Festival Gala, full of gala spectaculars that are glitzy and mindless. (Go ahead, make up your own American analogy, something like “Lawrence Welk and Britney Spears meet the Ice Capades in Las Vegas for July 4th fireworks, with special effects from Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and the designers of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”)
Some folks complain that the gala doesn’t devote enough attention to minorities and social issues. In 2004, the gala’s planners tried to loosen things up by including more audience-participation shows.
During Spring Festival, lots of kids and families shoot off fireworks, from rooftops and parks. They’re not the dinky little fireworks that American kids shoot at July 4th; instead, they’re industrial-strength fireworks, many feet tall, the size of surface-to-air missiles, shooting hundreds of feet into the air, with multiple payloads, colors, ba-ba-booming sounds, visible from miles away — the kind that Americans would permit only when shot by professionals protected by a moat and a fire department. On Chinese New Year night, the sounds and sights will make you think you’re in a war zone. Chinese families schlep oil drums to the park, then launch the many rockets hiding inside, by remote control, and just hope no girl walking by at the wrong moment has her guts propelled to heaven.
Mahjong When Chinese folks have nothing else to do, they play mahjong, which is a form of poker. Instead of “hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades,” the suits are “sticks, circles, and chickens.” Instead of being thin, the cards are thick, so they look like wooden dominoes (or big Scrabble letters).
Mahjong players usually gamble small amounts of money. Elderly people like to spend their days relaxing in teahouses while playing mahjong.
Badminton While waiting for customers, shop assistants sometimes stand outside, on the sidewalk, playing badminton. It’s good exercise for the employees, and it attracts attention to the store. But if you try that in the U.S., some bureaucrat will probably complain that the store doesn’t have a badminton-on-sidewalk permit.
Drum corps When a new store’s been constructed and has its grand opening, the store hires a 100-woman drum corps, which marches back and forth in front of the store, banging their drums. It attracts attention to the store and the whole neighborhood.
Hey, kids, why not start a similar service in the U.S., to attract attention to new businesses? Just make sure you get permits!
Historic sites In the U.S., historic sites are rather boring: you usually enter a building, hear a lecture, and get tired. Chinese historic sites are more fascinating, because they’re surrounded by beautiful parks.
To enter a Chinese historic building, you must hop over a wall that’s nearly a foot high. That wall’s the threshold: it marks the doorway’s bottom. All old houses and buildings had those thresholds instead of American-style “doors,” which weren’t needed since Sichuan usually has pleasantly warm weather, no snowstorms, no rainstorms, and no crime.
In the Northeastern U.S., many places brag that “George
Washington slept here.” In Sichuan, many towns brag that
“Li Bai lived here.” He was China’s most famous poet. He lived from 701 A.D. to 762 A.D., during the Tang dynasty. He’s called the “drunk poet,” because his poems are full of drunken hallucinations. His most famous poem begins like this:
Like most of his poems, it begins by describing China’s natural beauty, but American men notice it’s also a good poem to recite to a urinal.
Another Sichuan attraction is Du Jiang Yan, the world’s first major water project, built in 250 B.C. by the Qin family (who, 29 years afterwards, conquered the rest of China and called themselves the “Qin dynasty.”) The project was hard: to divert water to Chengdu, Qin’s peasants had to build a dam and blow up a mountain, but explosives hadn’t been invented yet, so they broke the mountain’s boulders apart by lighting fires on them, then dousing the fires with cold water, to make the rocks fissure. After 8 years of that, they finally created a mountain pass for their canal to flow through. Now the canal, dam, and reservoir are surrounded by a park with scenic views of mountains and rivers.
Sichuan rarely gets rainstorms but often gets drizzles. The drizzles dampen the streets but aren’t strong enough to wash dirt away, so city streets and sidewalks stay dirty and dusty awhile, until finally attacked by city employees who grab huge brooms (resembling tree branches) and sweep every street and sidewalk in the whole city, by hand.
Since Sichuan is usually warm and balmy, retired folks love to relax by sitting outside (playing mahjong at outdoor cafés) or doing aerobic martial-arts dances in parks.
Beijing is farther north, much colder, and much windier. It’s also less relaxed: there are fewer benches to sit on. In winter, Beijing’s grass turns pale, while Sichuan’s stays green.
In many cities (such as Mianyang in Sichuan province), the bottom 4 feet of each tree trunk are painted white, to discourage bugs from eating the bark.
Hanging roots Especially in downtown Mianyang, you see trees that have strange things hanging down from the branches. Those “strange things” are roots! Yes, roots grow down from the branches and search for the soil. If those extra roots don’t succeed in reaching the soil, they shrivel; otherwise, they grow strong and look like auxiliary trunks.
Painting If you want to become a landscape painter, look at the trees on the hills near Mianyang. The branches bend in strange ways. Especially in winter, the leaves are sparse but come in bunches, which look like powder puffs, so they’re easy to paint: just one dab from a splayed brush will give you a whole puff. New England is best for colors, but China is best for shapes.
Bulges Many trees look pregnant: they have huge bulges around their trunks. If you look at the bulges carefully, you discover they’re bales of hay, tied into balls and hung there by farmers.
When I travel, I’m more interested in the people than their wares.
What the Chinese think of America The Chinese are eager to learn English (because they want to understand American music and movies and earn more money from international trade). They like most Americans, though they think Bush was an idiotic callous jerk to start a war with Iraq.
Though Americans often visit big cities such as Beijing, Americans are rarer in small cities such as Mianyang and Jiangyou. Many kids in those cities have never seen an in-the-flesh American before — though they’ve studied English in school and seen Americans on TV — so they stare at me when I walk down the street or sit in a restaurant. They treat me as if I’m a cross between a Martian and a superstar. A 7-year-old girl kept staring at me while I was eating in a restaurant; finally, when I was leaving, she shyly said “Hello” to me in English. I said “Hello” back to her. That made her day. She beamed.
Dancing The Chinese people are proud of their culture. Donna’s relatives showed me their dancing skills and asked me to show them my American dancing, so I showed them the most advanced American dances I’ve mastered:
All her relatives started freakily copying my Bunny Hop and Hokey-Pokey, and Donna made me teach those dances to all senior citizens in the park, too! So now I, too, can put on my résumé that I’m an “American who corrupted Chinese culture.”
Advice The Chinese love to give advice. In fact, they insist on giving advice, even when you don’t want it.
A friend of mine visited China for many months and became part of China’s culture. When she returned to the U.S., her roommates complained her personality had changed: she’d turned into an annoying authoritarian asshole, telling them all how to act. She apologized and returned to the American philosophy of “do whatever you want.”
Donna’s daughter explained to me that in China, each group of people (such as a family) develops a leader who tells everybody else in the group what to do; and if anybody asks why, the leader just says, “That’s a rule.” The leader keeps inventing more rules.
Because of China’s history of repressive governments and mass slaughters, survival’s often meant being warned what to do, before you get in trouble. But now that China’s government is starting to loosen up, maybe someday the Chinese will become as free as Americans.
City reputations Sichuan province’s most famous city is Chengdu, which produces beautiful women. (My wife was born there.) Married men who visit Chengdu often wish they’d married Chengdu women instead! Chinese people say:
More often, Chinese people use advanced grammar to purposely create Daoist mysterious confusion, like this:
Recently, other Chinese cities have become even richer than Guangzhou.
“Not One Less”
To experience China without leaving the comfort of your American home, rent a movie about China. I recommend Not One Less, which I found at our local video-rental store in New Hampshire.
It’s about a girl who, though just 13 years old, is forced to take a job as an elementary-school teacher in rural impoverished China, then must run to the city to retrieve a student who ran away, then winds up on TV.
The biggest surprise comes at the end, when you discover who the actors are. The characters are all played by themselves: they used their real names and real titles. Even the bureaucrat was played by… a bureaucrat!
You’ll see the schoolkids get lessons in Chinese & math and see how hard it is to discipline an elementary-school class.
The director is famous in China for trying weird experiments. The movie ends with a political message saying millions of schoolkids run away from school to earn money for their families.
The film is subtitled and won an international award in 1999, but I can’t figure out when the story’s supposed to take place, since the schoolkids give a pledge-of-allegiance to Mao, who died in the 1970’s, and my wife doesn’t believe life in rural China is so bad today. Is it?
88 ways to know you’re Chinese
People who are born in the United States but are ethnically Chinese are called American-born Chinese (ABC). People who are born in Canada but are ethnically Chinese are called Canadian-born Chinese (CBC).
Canadian-born Chinese love to pass around an e-mail that reveals “88 ways to know whether you’re Chinese.” Chinese in Canada and the U.S. have gradually improved the list, to make it truer. I’ve organized it into topics.…