Archive | March, 2012

The broken hearts of breaking news

28 Mar

Shocking, isn't it?

Have you read the news today?

Are you…

a) Subjected to violence or indignity; violated. Also (now esp.) fig.; Deeply offended or angered; indignant;

Or b) Having a broken heart, broken-hearted; overwhelmed with anguish, despair, or crushing grief?

We’re all familiar with the identity of “Outraged from Basildon”, the carbon-copy member of the public who is always the first to comment on any issue from they genuinely awful to the mildly irritating.

As the Daily Mail is so often seen as the mouthpiece of Middle Britain (read the New Yorker if you don’t believe me) a quick search through its recent articles is a good place to start for the UK view.

Sure enough, subjects worthy of “outrage” in the past week included (to name but a few):

In each case, the line was practically the same. In the Mad Men story, for example: “‘I was outraged!’ one viewer, Liz Warner, told MailOnline. ‘I felt like I was watching a made-for-TV movie the last hour. But honestly, I was more outraged by how disappointing the ads were.”

If it isn’t outrage, then it’s a similar sentiment expressing affront at something someone else has done. “Disgusted” or “appalled” are popular. For some adjectival colour, try “disgraceful”, as Susanne Ruddy, 37, did back in December to describe “disgraceful” youths who attacked a shopping centre Santa.

In China, however, sentiment is a little more – well, sentimental. When called on to give a one-size-fits-all opinion in Chinese English language newspapers, Chinese eyewitnesses are invariably “heartbroken”.

A quick peek at China Daily is all you need to introduce you to the broken hearts of China.

China Daily writer Huang Xiangyang described himself as “Stunned and heartbroken” to see his stokes behave in a less than favourable manner.

Businessmen who had spent millions on rare tropical fish (I am not making this up) were “heartbroken after learning that tropical fish can easily die if they are not kept in the proper environment and fed the right food”, according to “one IT engineer and lover of ornamental fish”, Wang Yuan.

Disappointed sports fans tend to be “heartbroken” too.

And of course, when it came to reporting on “a friend’s departure” aka the death of North Korean leader Kim jong-Il, Pyongyang residents were also invariably “heartbroken” according to Chinese reporters.

It’s the same story for Global Times, Xinhua – all the other Chinese-run, English-subbed papers.

Admittedly this isn’t the most scientific analysis of English and Chinese media. If it wasn’t for the fact that Chinese English-language newspapers source most of their stories (and therefore quotes) from international media outlets, you might be able to directly compare two different accounts of the same story for a clearer picture. Equally, many foreign stories about China clearly come from a source like Xinhua. Hence the BBC et al will often also quote Chinese interviewees as “heartbroken”.

But it does seem to say something about the culture of reaction in either country. When something shocks us in the UK, we get angry, we shout, we go red in the face, and we write stern letters to the editor. When your average Zhou in China is shocked, he or she feels sad and mourn their loss.

And neither of us does anything about it.

The Ex-pat Affair: Pairing up, Peking-style

22 Mar

At it like...?

Ah, Soft Cell. They must have been thinking of Beijing when they filled the early 80s airwaves with the words “tainted love”. Year abroaders, cultural exchangers, foreign experts and TOEFLers flock to Beijing. Minds are broadened, eyes opened and CVs swollen by the great CHINA EXPERIENCE.

But when it comes to chasing a date, we’re all just big kids. The school library may be 5,000 miles or more away, but when you end up in a corner of the compound or a hidden in the shadows of a hutong, it’s easy to feel as if you’re back behind those bookshelves again.

Sadly, like high school romance, ex-pat pairings don’t tend to last in this transient community. You get the odd veteran who manages to set up camp for good. But most foreigners in China come with an expiry date, plane tickets pre-booked for the ride home.

Still, hormones will be hormones and pheromones be pheromones – especially when shackin’ up Sino-style is so wrought with interest and intrigue. Because the other thing about ex-pats in Beijing is that they’re all weird in their own way. Who else would be happy to breathe air as fresh as five cigarettes a month, eat steamed buns stuffed with gutter oil and cardboard pork, and funnel bottles of bootleg booze into their liver every night (who would have thought 30 kuai all-you-can-drink lychee martinis were a bad idea?)? You’ve got to be pretty eccentric to choose China.

And so, flying Round the Corner via this somewhat convulted introduction, Chicken Feet’s King brings you his guide to the couples, the lovers and the bonkers of Beijing.

As the Beatles sang: “所以你必要的只是爱…”

The holiday romance

He was on his gap year; she was an intern still applying for “real jobs” in the USA. Their eyes met as they reached for a free da ping at the language school welcome party. It was I-fancy-you at first sight.

The next few weeks were a whirl of Great Wall hikes, cutesy pedalos on Houhai lake and hand-in-hand hutong strolls. Evenings were spent perched side by side on tiny stools in the street, nibbling spicy meat off chuar skewers. Nights saw them shagging like rabbits in time to the thud of the air-con unit.

Then August 5 arrived and he started uni. Bummer.

Some holiday romances make it as far as the airport, with obligatory sobbing at the gate. They make it through a month and a half or so of 4 am Skype chats. But eventually the whole time difference thing becomes a bit of a faff. Now it’s nothing but the odd Facebook poke and the guilty knowledge that you still stalk his profile pictures (just who is that blonde…?).

Of course, other “hol roms” end before the ETD. One member of the party freaks out at the “long distance” prospect and pens the old break-up text.

Oh well. Next term’s intake will be here soon.

Gone Native

A phenomenon also described in various un-PC terms, the most inoffensive of which is “Yellow Fever”, and which refers to those who have hooked up with someone who is Chinese.

Contrary to popular belief, female as well as male ex-pats can Go Native. Typically Chinese boyfriends have already been in the ex-pat’s own country, whereas Gone-Native boys hook up over here, but this is not a rule.

These are the rare relationships that can actually lead to something lasting, hence the handful of Chinese-looking kids with completely Caucasian-looking siblings.

More often than not, however, after a brief honeymoon period, the cultural barriers are raised again. Her parents don’t like this lanky laowei and step up the pressure on her to find a proper husband. Her friends start to complain about his drinking, his clothes. The novelty of hearing sweet nothings whispered in bad Chinese and bad English starts to wear off on both sides. Chinese people tend not to date around. The breakup is ungainly and unpleasant.

Maybe just “language partner” is a better idea.

Long-distance loners

China is where the jobs are right now, but some other halves have somehow managed to land a spot on the rat run. They are understandably unwilling to jump off it again and swap their hoover and their local Waitrose for a flat in Chaoyang with no toilet.

Money and letters are sent home. Smiling photos and postcards obscure the fridge from view. The next flight is always booked. One eye is perpetually on UK recruitment websites with the mouse hovering over the job that could take you back home.

And yet you don’t click. Because, even though you miss your boyfriend/girlfriend/wife/husband/partner… really, really, really miss them… China is a blast.

Love in a cold compound

The compound – the great all-inclusive package that comes with every “native speaker” job in China. A ready-made group of foreigner friends and a free apartment, and it’s right next door to your work too – what more could you want? The temptation is never to leave that little compound circle – ever.

So begins the cycle of gossip, incest and love dodecahedra that are part and parcel of compound life.

If you haven’t snogged at least one person who lives less than two minutes away from your flat, then you’re not from the compound.

If you haven’t fibbed to at least one other person that there’s nothing between you and the bloke next door, then you’re not from the compound.

If you haven’t spent the night with a girl in the full knowledge that she spent last night with the guy in the office next to yours, then you’re not from the compound.

Now how about a Jaegerbomb and a game of truth or dare…?

The propaganda pests

Wudaokou in northwest Beijing is a fun place. Close to six of Beijing’s most international universities, it is the city’s real student hangout, inviting abundant street food, bars, pubs and clubs – clubs like the notorious Propaganda.

No one goes to Propaganda hoping for a “clean” night. Wednesday night is all you can drink for 50 RMB, which pretty much describes the kind of place this is. It is sweaty, smelly and dank, the air heavy with stale cigarette smoke and Lady Gaga with too much bass.

Likewise, the propaganda pests are the dirtiest of any of Beijing’s wildlife. They range from greasy European in white tracksuit to sleazy man with too much cologne to stick-thin girl in Ugg boots and little else. The genus, however, is always the same – over-sexed, over-drugged and over here.

If you’re aiming to catch an STD, then this would be a good place to start. Even if you’re not, prepare for some serious groping any time you attempt to cross the dance floor – and that goes for guys as well as girls.

Snuggle buddies

Members of this last group have usually been through several of the other categories of romance and have decided that the whole relationship thing is a pain in the proverbial. Let’s stick with “just friends”.

But deep down, the snuggle buddies know there’s a fine line between a mate and a date – and that they usually cross it. Deep down, they know why most of their “close friends” are of the opposite sex.

Relationships are bad news in Beijing. But a quick snog on the bedroom floor isn’t a relationship, is it?

It’s lonely away from your kindred a’tall. Even the most determined singletons need a snuggle sometimes.

Happy Women’s Day, petal – now take the day off

8 Mar

Today is International Women’s Day.

In the UK, according to, 396 events are planned, in the US 232, and several hundred in other countries. Organisations and charities are highlighting the most serious issues affecting women  – sexual issues, issues of employment, slavery and prostitution to name a few.  Oxfam is stepping up some of its key campaigns against female genital mutilation and child trafficking. The Southbank Centre in London is organising mentoring sessions to help women succeed in business.

My local supermarket in Beijing is also getting into the spirit of International Women’s Day. About two weeks ago, a garish banner appeared above the escalator. It bore the words “International Women’s Day”  in pale pink English and Chinese characters written in a swirling script that would not have looked out of place on a perfume bottle. Surrounding the slogan were flowers entwined with the words “pretty roses”.

As March 8 drew ever closer,  Beijing’s shops filled their shelves with at least as many heart-shaped chocolates, pink cream cakes and baskets of frilly teddies as there had been on Valentine’s Day. The theme was the same everywhere – pretty, silly little things to please pretty, silly little girls.

I don’t think I overreacted when I felt genuine anger at  the way commercialism has spread its tacky wings over International Women’s Day in China – just like it does over every festival here, from Christmas tinsel to Mid-Autumn Festival mooncakes.

Admittedly my perspective is bound to be a bit feminist. I can’t help having a slight ball-basher streak, what with a mother who styled herself on the butt-kicking Germaine Greers and Betty Fords of the 1970s, and six years of my life spent at a hideous private girls’ school, where you learn that women need to be taken seriously.

On the other hand, I’m not about to tear my bra off and burn it on the nearest bonfire. I belong to the Caitlin Moran school of feminism, which refuses to call men “the enemy”, which reserves the right to bitch about other women, and which likes a nice new handbag and a pair of snazzy heels every once in a while (provided they come from the ultra-cushioned Marks and Spencer’s Footglove range and can be surreptitiously replaced with flip-flops as soon as people are too drunk to notice).

So I mean it seriously, without any hint of “girl power” hysteria, when I say that China cannot afford to let women’s issues become shrouded in this blanket of scented tissues and teddies. Women in China are teetering on a fine line between opportunity and discrimination. This is the moment to determine the country’s future.

On the one hand, women have career chances that break many of the “glass ceilings” that persist in the West. One fifth of the parliamentarians in the Chinese National People’s Congress are female, higher than the 17 percent of the U.S. Congress who are women, according to Reuters. According to the Grant Thornton International Business Report, released just before International Women’s Day, women held a quarter of senior management positions on the Chinese mainland in 2011, outranking Britian, France, Switzerland, the USA, and particularly Germany, where a woeful 13 percent were held by women.

In the media, women outnumber men in many areas. At China Daily, China’s national English-language newspaper, the ratio of women to men among the editorial and newsroom staff is 60 to 40, according to Deputy Editor in Chief Huang Qing. Positive discrimination has even been introduced to try and equalise the balance. Compare this to the UK, where, according to a survey by the campaigning group Women in Journalism in March 2011, some 74 percent of news journalists and 70 percent of arts reporters on national papers were men, and China starts to look streets ahead of the West in terms of gender equality.

Among blue-collar workers, women are also making their presence felt. Women make up 46 percent of the Chinese workforce and 49 percent of the population, meaning the proportion of female workers is the largest of any country. In industrial cities like Dongguan, some 70 percent of the population is now female.

Beneath the surface, however, tradition still places pressure and discrimination on Chinese women. In traditional families, sons stay at home to look after elderly parents, daughters are expected to live with their husband’s family, and  having a baby boy is preferable for many families. Under the pressure of the one-child policy, abortions of female foetuses are common in the countryside, and orphanages are often full of baby girls – in some cases up to 95 percent.

The pressures do not relax into adulthood. A 2006 BBC series, China: Women of the Country, revealed that China is the only country in the world where more women commit suicide every year than men – there are 1.5 million attempted female suicides every year. Those interviewed for the programme cited brutal treatment by husbands and male family members. A feature in today’s China Daily discussed the pressure on women to remain virgins before marriage, and gave a horrific insight into the domestic violence that some face if their husbands decide they are unchaste.

And while women have secured a foothold in some important positions, men still hold the real power, both politically and economically. All nine members of the Party’s top ruling body, the Politburo Standing Committee, are men. Women own only 20 percent of businesses, compared to a world average of 30 percent.

International Women’s Day should be a chance for China to raise all these issues, and to prod that delicate future balance in favour of women. But the cutesy cards and frilly banners are a worrying sign of what Chinese people – including Chinese women – think of when they think of “women” . The number of references in this week’s China Daily to women buying themselves “treats for Women’s Day” are a case in point. It’s a chance for girls to spoil themselves, but not to take themselves seriously.

When I came into work this morning, my boss greeted me with the news that I have been given half a day’s holiday – a reward, I presume, for being a woman on International Women’s Day. Don’t get me wrong – I love holidays.

Even so, being told to go home for half a day seemed to me an unusual way of encouraging equality for women in the workplace.