Archive | September, 2011

Weather not good – but I have eaten

30 Sep

Rain: the start of an excellent British conversation

My Chinese is getting better. I can tell the lift lady that “I am late” or the waiter “I don’t care what kind of dumpling I eat”.

But I have hit against one barrier which is seriously impeding my ability to progress  to fully-fledged small talk. Chinese people do not talk about the weather.

Now, I know it’s a cliché, but British people need to be able to talk about the weather, and no more so than in the past couple of days. Any journalist who knows his salt will have published a story on this Indian summer you chaps are having over there (bastards). In fact, one of my own big breaks (joint byline and everything!) was a hard-hitting Easter exposé  for the Independent entitled “The weather’s great (but getting anywhere will be a nightmare”. Nick Davies, eat your heart out.

However, when I asked my Chinese teacher how to say “how’s the weather?”, he genuinely refused to tell me. “tiānqì (weather) is a very technical word,” he said. “Only scientists and the weather forecasters on the TV use it.”

The same was true of “cloudy”, “overcast”, and any type of rain that isn’t just “rain”. In China, weather is either good or not good. Period. Although one thing you can say is “it’s very polluted today” (jīntiān hěn wūrǎn) – pretty blindingly obvious in Beijing

So what do Chinese people use as their replacement vacuous conversation filler?

Food: the basis of Chinese conversation and culture

“Nǐ chī le ma?” – “Have you eaten?” – is essentially the Chinese equivalent of the British greeting, “Lovely/awful weather, isn’t it?” i.e. it actually means “how are you?”.

It’s appropriate too, because if British people talk constantly about the weather, it is nothing compared to how much Chinese people talk about food.

They talk about food all the time. And I mean ALL THE TIME.

Every issue of China Daily has some item about food or restaurants. Every festival is based around some sort of cake, bun, or strange appendage of animal you never thought edible until it appeared on your plate.

In fact, one of the only time Chinese people do not talk about food is when they are eating – something they do in a BIG way.

A smart work lunch, for example, is not just a ploughman’s or a bowl of bolognaise. We’re talking at least three dishes per person (and rice, and noodles, and potato), served on a table with a sort of metal turnstile in the middle, so you can spin the vast array of savoury, spicy and sweet delights to get as much as you can. Whatever isn’t finished is of course packed away to take home for when the indigestion subsides.

If you lose your watch in Beijing, don’t panic. You could literally time your life by the types of food served up from cookshop porches. Rice porridge and sweet buns in the morning; steamed buns and corn on the cob at lunch; meaty pancakes at dinner; and meat, meat, meat, all hours of the day and night, served ten at a time in the form of skewers – chwar.

Nosh in this city is as ubiquitous as – well, as the weather. Considering this, it hopefully won’t be too hard to accustom myself to a new kind of chitter-chatter – once I’ve got used to the linguistic lack of weather. And once that damn heatwave has stopped in the UK.

In any case – as anyone who knows me or has read this blog will testify – I’m perfectly capable of wittering on about “whether I have eaten” for hours on end. As well as what I have eaten, how I ate it, and how I felt post cibum.

China becomes harmonious society – for a week, maybe

27 Sep

Scenes of commotion have broken out in the 21st Century China Daily office today. Desks are being shoved to one side, papers gathered into bundles, bins emptied, empty pens thrown away, fridges scrubbed and keyboards polished. A decorative tree which had shriveled to a stalk bearing one solitary brown leaf has just been wheeled surreptitiously through the corridor to be dumped a safe distance from the building. The news has just got out: tomorrow we will be paid a visit by the Director of Civic Enhancement – aka the Civilisation Officer, the Sanitary Inspection Lady, or the Harmonious Society Woman.

Chaoyang, my own district, tells the world it is "civilised"

Harmonious Society. Civic Enhancement. The cornerstones of Chinese government policy.

Walk down any Beijing street and you are likely to be handed a leaflet advertising the latest public movement to improve levels of civilisation in your district. Most focus on one theme, ranging from how to balance the nutrition in your daily dinners, to how to cope with earthquakes, to how to keep dogs in the right way.

Lu Xuan, a colleague of mine, has built up quite a collection of these handy leaflets over the years. “You get a different theme each year,” he said. “They have pictures and recipes to go with them. The old ones decades ago could be boring. But you can actually learn a lot from the new ones – and they’re free.”

Government TV broadcasts also provide useful hints for how to keep society harmonious, such as not picking your nose and not spitting in the street.

Of course, a walk down a Beijing street, or a glance at a certain former post by yours truly, is enough to show you just how effective all this is.

The same is true of the crackdowns by officials from the City Management Bureau – the chengguan, employees of the local government rather than members of the party line like the Civic Enhancement Officers. These guys are responsible for sniffing out shops and restaurants that don’t meet sanitation standards, and for nabbing people who try to sell without a license.

Now don’t get me wrong – for those who fall foul of the chengguan, reprecussions can be brutal, particularly as they operate without warrants and with little real controls on their activities. Last year in September, kebab seller Xia Junfeng was arrested by four chenguan officials for operating without a license. They took him to their office and beat him up. Then Xia drew a knife which he had managed to smuggle in with him and stabbed two of the officers to death. He was sentenced to death, but the sentence was delayed because of online uproar from the Chinese net community, furious that Xia was being punished for defending himself. He is still awaiting his sentence.

For the most part, however, people are pretty adept at avoiding the chenguan. The hawkers and peddlars who gather outside apartment buildings and on streets always have a look-out posted to keep an eye out for the characteristic blue suits. At the slightest hint of trouble everyone scarpers, throwing blankets over the fruit they have in their horse-carts and cantering off into the distance. Ditto the shops down my road which were shuttered up during a crackdown last month. Within a week, every single one was back in business.

Of course, our Sanitary Inspection Lady is not about to beat any of us up. Part and parcel of the same government drive towards harmonious society she may be – every government-controlled organisation (like China Daily) employs one of these officers. As long as you make sure you throw your old newspaper away, however, she’s really quite cuddly. In fact, it is she who is in charge of refunding the medical bills of China Daily employees. She makes sure pregnant employees can cope with their workloads and sorts out their maternity leave.

Likewise, not everyone in China sees the push for “civilisation” as a bad thing. “The problem is that most Chinese citizens don’t take words from the government seriously,” says Lu Xian. “Unfortunately in this case, they should.

However, thanks to inconveniences like the chenguan and incidents like the Xia Junfeng case, the entire governmental concept of harmonious society has become tainted. “Like the famous saying that once people lost confidence in your dignity, the things you do, no matter good or bad, always get negative comments,” Lu Xian continues.

“The chief problem in China, I think, it not that we lack of laws and regulations, but that we are not serious about abiding by the laws and regulations. People sometimes admire those who get the knack of bypassing, even when laws are actually beneficial.”

Rigorous our Harmonious Society Woman may be at making us chuck away our mouldy grapes (although she tends to ignore us “foreign experts”, clearly recognising that we are beyond redemption), but in a few days you can guarantee the fridge will have been restocked with gently rotting food.

The office – just like the harmonious society as a whole – goes back to its completely chaotic yet comfortably un-harmonious self.

What’s in a name – Chinese to English

26 Sep

Weir - a name inspiration

As a follow-up to the huge LOL @ the news that my name has changed to Mugwort, I thought I’d give y’all back home a useful little insight into the flip side of the name-gaining process – English names of Chinese people.

There are two main ways I have encountered for Chinese people to choose their English name. Method one: ask your teacher. Method two: pick something you yourself like or you want to emulate.

Now, when you’re asked to pick “something you like” out of the blue, the chances are you won’t just go for the bog-standard Ben, Tom or Sophie. Add to this a healthy dose of language barriers and cultural misunderstandings, and you end up with the most colourful selection of English names.

Let’s start with those chosen by teachers.

Now, no offence, but with the odd exception, teachers don’t tend to be the most hip ‘n’ happenin cats. Hence names chosen by method one tend to be ones that would not look out of place in a 1930s children’s book. My colleague is called Doris, for example. You can just see her teacher flicking open a dusty copy of the Famous Five, and picking out the first name from the mire of “Gosh, Julian”s.

Method two seems simple enough, but still comes rife with issues.

Take Albert, my work colleague. His teacher advised them to pick the name of someone they admire. “Albert Einstein, I must be crazy, but that is the first name that came up to my mind,” he told me (via MSN, like every conversation in the China Daily office, because you can’t do smileys in real-time talk)…
ellie b says:
鲁翾 says:
then I looked up in the dictionary and find it a quite boring name…
but everybody is starting to call me albert
then it is ok

Then we have the problem of transcription. A friend of mine has a work colleague called Weir – spelt W-E-I-R. My friend commented that this was really unusual, and wondered how he had chosen this interesting Scottish name.

“It is my favourite actor,” he said. “Weir Smith”. Clearly someone’s English teacher had misheard him.

Then, of course, there are the people who “most admire” Lady Gaga, and the Matrix fans who call themselves “Neo”.

Not that something you admire needs to be human, either. I have heard of Chinese people who are called McDonalds and Chocolate.

Bearing all this in mind, I guess it’s quite appropriate that I ended up named after my favourite pudding. Confusion and disappointment – not that I’m disappointed to be called Gu – seem to be the name of the game.