Tag Archives: China

Out of Asia – Part I: New Zealand

Let’s face it: my life is bound up with Asia. Between my birth and first few years spent in Singapore, my years spent living in China, and all of my travel in South and Southeast Asia (I’ve now been to every SE Asian country except Brunei), I will have spent more than a quarter of my life in Asia by the time RP and I make our real exit from China next spring.

So I think it’s understandable that Asia and I need a little time away from each other sometimes. Often I haven’t been able to pinpoint this as the exact source of my weariness, but then when we landed in New Zealand for our honeymoon it was as if a huge weight had been lifted from my chest; I breathed easily for the first time in what seemed like months. And when I flew into Beirut a couple weeks ago, sailing over the snow-covered peaks of the Mount Lebanon range and descending towards the sparkling embrace of the Mediterranean, all I could think was Oh yes – the rest of the world. I remember you.

The different cultural reference points, staple ingredients, language families, religions – the impression these things make is immediate and profound. The Chinese sphere of cultural influence is wide and deep; you can get on a plane and travels for many hours in several directions, and still be within it.

Because China is such a deeply foreign place to live as an American, and because I have lived here for a little while, it can be tempting to think that I know about “the world”. That’s not the case, of course – I know about China. And a few other places in Asia. But there is so much more to see, so much that I don’t understand, so many peoples of whom I know almost nothing.

(Case in point: it took most of the flight from Kunming to Dubai, en route to Lebanon, to put my finger on where the 35 boisterous and brightly dressed women with Central Asian features who refused to sit down on my flight were from. Not Arabic speaking, and able to speak only broken Mandarin…anyone know? They were Uighur, of course.)

I’ve been coming to China for the past seven and a half years, and while I’m not done with this place – we’re not planning on moving back to the States until next year – I am ready for a little diversity. Next up, later this summer: Russia, by way of Berlin. Oh yes! I’m talkin St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, my friends.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, a photo catch-up. First, the greatest honeymoon in history (biased, whatever): Kunming –> Singapore –> New Zealand –> Melbourne –> Kunming.

It’s already taken me FOUR DAYS to try to put up this post, so enough gabbing…Each pic below links to the full gallery of photos we took in that place.

There’s no way to fly straight from Kunming to New Zealand, so we stopped over in Singapore:

Here’s the apartment building I lived in when I was a baby…

Then on to Christchurch (after the September 2010 earthquake that disturbed people severely and damaged buildings, but before the mid-February 2011 earthquake that killed over 160 people and destroyed buildings. A tragedy for this lovely place…).

Then a bus to the city of Dunedin, and the Otago Peninsula, where we biked, rode horses, and saw the most beautiful animals – yellow-eyed penguins, sea lions, albatrosses – all living in the wild.

Another bus brought us to Te Anau, to the epic Fiordlands of the south island and an unforgettable four days walking the Milford Track.

A bus to Queenstown, home of the world’s most picturesque airport, where we took a staggeringly beautiful flight to the Auckland, on the north island. (It was on this flight that I actually got upset with how stunning the world looks from that vantage point, so close to the Arctic Circle, the Pacific stretching out toward the horizon. It was almost heartbreaking.)

A ferry to Waiheke Island, nearby Auckland, with its rolling green hills, beaches and vineyards – where I learned to love white wine.

And an early flight to Melbourne, where we were lucky to spend a day before heading back to Kunming. (I know – no one’s told you how cool Melbourne is. Trust me when I say that it’s hipster central.)

Best trip ever.

A zisn Peysakh, everybody!

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Pen and Paper

Recently, the government has stepped up its efforts in internet censorship over here, and that’s why I haven’t been posting. It takes forever to get this page to open, when it works at all, and then things are all malfunctioning…don’t even get me started on trying to post photos.

I’ve started keeping a diary – a real live pen and paper affair. It’s mundane, but I think I’ve downplayed too much the importance of recording the mundane. March has passed, and it’s been freezing cold and grey. We crowd our feet around our little space heater and wear our long johns every day.

I’m going to try to keep posting here – change is afoot! I’m leaving for Lebanon on Saturday, for a work-related conference. I’m staring down the end of my time at this job, which will mark two years in China (where did that time go?). I’m barely keeping up, having not posted anything here about the staggeringly awesome trip that was our honeymoon. New Zealand is paradise – did you know that? 100% paradise. I can’t remember when I’ve been so happy.

It’s already taken me an hour to put this up, what with the internet crappiness, so here is a minor teaser photo, from the Port Hills of Christchurch, of a New Yorker in New Zealand:

Here’s hoping I hope I can post more soon.

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Equal Opportunity Excoriation Available

It has been pointed out to me by certain people to whom I am married that my criticism of China is getting a little…immoderate. That the way I criticize China makes it seem as if I am ignoring the exact same flaws in other countries and societies. I’ll agree that my criticism sometimes gets out of hand, or is simply petty – I have been overly cranky recently, and taking it out on “China” because it’s easy to do. Sometimes it makes me feel better, but often it just makes me crankier, and makes me more likely to act like an idiot for no reason. (Example: Almost laying down my life in front of an illegally turning city bus while shouting PEDESTRIANS FIRST! just to prove a point doesn’t really change the enforcement of traffic laws in Kunming.)

On the other hand, I criticize China because I’m submersed in China at the moment, and because many aspects of life here are highly deserving of criticism. Does this mean that the US isn’t deserving of criticism? Not at all – but I’m not taking random shots at one to be a facile booster of the other. (Unlike some people, coughTomFriedmanyouidiotcough.) And in fact, there are a great many of exactly the same aspects of Chinese and American society that deserve criticism – tremendous income inequality, environmental degradation, citizens’ xenophobia and narrow-mindedness, racism – I could go on.

That said, my absolutely least favorite excuse of people who defend harmful government policies or action/inaction is that the criticizer has no right to criticize, because other countries are or were just as bad. These conversations are exceedingly tiresome:

American: Wow, I can’t believe the government of Fascistan just killed hundreds of indigenous people in the south!

Fascistanian: The US government killed millions of American Indians in its quest to settle the continent! And the Australians did it too!

American: Are you saying that a genocide in the US is a good excuse for the brutal Fascitanian oppression of indigenous people here?!

Fascistanian: FOREIGNER! You can never understand our ways!

I’m not totally lacking in relativism, but my point is that governments and societies often engage in behavior that I find objectively stupid, corrupt, and harmful – China, the US, wherever. Actually, particularly China and the US.

So when we move back to the States I promise to start up a new blog – BirdAtHome, or whatever – and go to town on American stupidity and the totalitarian tendencies of the US government. But for now, we live here. So China gets it.

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Nobody Puts China in a Corner!

As this is my first Christmas in China (last year I went back to NYC), I was all prepared to deal with it by mostly ignoring it. Since people here mostly wouldn’t be celebrating it, I assumed, this wouldn’t be that difficult.

Ahahahahaha!

It turns out that, with the building of new shopping malls, comes Christmas – even to places where almost nobody knows what Christmas is. The number of new malls and fancy stores that have opened in my neighborhood in the past year is staggering, and means that instead of one instance of Christmas unicorns, this year every shop had pasted up in its windows snowflake decals and cutouts of Santa’s rosy visage.

Santa at the local drug store

Fake Christmas trees are ubiquitous.

Perturbed by this sudden outpouring of holiday cheer, I took to asking random people what they thought Christmas is. The answer I got was mostly, “I have no idea.”

Do you know who that fat guy with the white beard is?

Do you know who Jesus is?

Do you know why your shop manager is making you wear an ungainly red suit and jaunty little hat this week?

You can probably guess what the answer to these questions was.

It turns out that the fancy malls with international brands had got wind that what you do at this time of year is put up styrofoam snowmen in your stores and offer big discounts, and that this increases your business. Then, of course, all of the smaller shops wanted in on the game – so they did the same thing. And enough people here have seen American movies featuring Christmas that they know it’s some international, or at least Western, thing to do – so of course they want to participate.

In case you should think this is a weird, Christmas-specific phenomenon, think again. Why did every company in China have World Cup-themed ad campaigns over the summer, despite the fact that Chinese people don’t really like soccer and China wasn’t even in the World Cup? Because it was a big deal internationally, and China doesn’t like to be left out. Why was the Olympics the most massive event in post-1980’s Chinese history? Because hosting the Olympics means that your country has been recognized by the international community as being worthy of positive attention. Why is the Chinese government particularly mad about this year’s Nobel peace prize? Because the government freakin’ LOVES the Nobel prizes – international recognition of the highest order! Except when it doesn’t make you look so good.

So of course, with something as internationally massive as Christmas, being left out of the fun simply won’t do – even if none of your citizens have any clue what it’s all about, to the extent that signs saying Merry Christmas 2011! are all over the city, because people assume that it must be some sort of new year’s event.

In fairness, it seems as if a few local traditions have begun springing up around Christmas that I simply wasn’t aware of. For example, apparently in the past couple of years it has become tradition to sell very wet and messy cans of Silly String on the streets of Kunming in the couple days before Christmas. Then, on Christmas Eve, massive crowds gather in the streets and public squares around the center of the city (where I live) wearing Santa hats, and spray each other, and random foreign passersby, with the noxious stuff. I think it’s meant to resemble snow (not that it ever snows here).

Or anyway, this is what I found out after I had barricaded myself inside my apartment last night and looked at the local news. But did I know this when I was walking home after dinner? No. And so when a few jerky valet parking guys at a local karaoke bar started spraying me and RP with Silly String, did I accept it as just a bit of local fun? Uh, no.

Instead, I started beating them physically around the shoulders with my gloves, shouting WHAT! THE! FUCK!

(Not my most glorious moment, I admit. But I’m trying to be honest here.)

Anyway. You can probably tell that I’m pretty peeved about Christmas in Kunming. I hate the ignorant and superficial appropriation of other cultural groups’ traditions, and that is unfortunately what mainstream Han Chinese culture seems to specialize in. The only thing that’s saved me from intractable Scrooge-iness is having stayed up until 2:30am last night watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” – it really does make everything better.

So Merry Christmas from me to you! And China wishes you a Merry Christmas too, even if it’s not sure why.

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All YiK, All the Time

This episode was a featured video on popular China blogs Shanghaiist and Danwei. RP is totally the most famous…Yiddish speaker…in Yunnan province.

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Who Cares About the “Real” China?

And then in December, RP and I went on what we’re calling our “Overseas Chinese Tour”: We met my Dad in Hong Kong a few weeks ago, and basically ate our way through the city (including the seafood of Lamma Island), dousing ourselves in champagne. Dad, you can come back to Asia any time!..

Lamma Island

Seafood on Lamma Island

About to board the Star Ferry

From there we flew to Penang, took a train to Kuala Lumpur, a bus to Melaka (or Malacca, if you prefer), and then a bus over the border to Singapore, my hometown!

Khoo Kongsi Temple in Penang

The old train station in Kuala Lumpur

Melaka from Bukit China (China Hill)

Last night of a tiring, happy trip: Singapore's Lau Pa Sat Hawker Centre

Click here to see all photos from the trip.

I realized a stupidly obvious thing on the Overseas Chinese Tour: my impression of Chinese culture growing up was, like most people living outside the mainland, based on experiences with Chinese immigrants. Most of these immigrants came from a very small number of places in southern China (like Fujian and Guangzhou); they were mostly speakers of Cantonese or Hakka, they served food particular to those regions in restaurants, built neighborhoods using regional architectural styles, took feng shui really seriously and practiced regional versions of Buddhism and Daoism.

Fastforward to my college years: I become interested in studying “Chinese” and “Chinese culture” – and, because this is 2001, what I study is Mandarin. The geographic focus of my classes is mainland China. Being taught by professors who, given their ages, were often studying at a time when foreigners were not allowed into the mainland, forcing them instead to study in Taiwan, I am given the impression that the mainland is where “real” Chinese culture is happening, where the “real” Chinese language is being spoken. No one told me that this might not be the Chinese culture I was interested in – no one told me that there was the option to study anything else.

Now, I get why it’s important to study the culture and history of mainland China, and why Mandarin is a critically important language in the modern world. But it honestly never occurred to me, during my college years and after, that my real cultural interest might lie with the Chinese diaspora. That Cantonese is a more fun and fiery language than Mandarin. That the food from the regions where immigrants tend to originate is, to me, tastier. That the religions practiced are wild and lively and full of ritual and superstition. That what’s going on, culturally, on the mainland might just be a paler version of what’s going on in the diaspora – not the other way around.

RP compared this aptly to Jews in the world (by the way, I swear we talk about stuff other than Jewishness): if you wanted to learn what Jews are about, you could go to Israel. You could learn Hebrew, could become wrapped up in Arab-Israeli conflict, could…I don’t know. Eat hummus. Or you could go to Brooklyn, learn Yiddish, and eat pastrami. In both cases you would be learning about Jews, but the cultural experiences couldn’t be more different. (And for the record, I love me some hummus. And some Brooklyn.)

I need some healing with China. I’m in a frustrated period. I should maybe stop traveling to southeast Asian countries and start traveling within the mainland, to remind myself that there’s a big Chinese world out there – but I should maybe also remember that China itself doesn’t have to be the Chinese world that I inhabit or relate to. I could learn some Cantonese, I could get involved with public health in Chinese-American communities in the US and elsewhere.

I’m convinced that the ability of diaspora cultures to thrive and be vibrant isn’t just related to their often being representative of a small group of determined, gutsy people from a “home country” – it’s also because those cultures can be allowed to develop without the constraints of things like domestic government manipulation, coercive majority languages and destructive calls for nationalism. As long as a cultural group can keep from total assimilation in their new adopted country, it makes sense to me that they could thrive to an even greater extent than possible in their home country.

Why didn’t anybody teach me that in college?

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Quick hit: A Yid in Khine Does Shanghai

Ach, so much to update that I forgot to post the most recent Yid in Khine video! Here’s part four, featuring RP on Shanghai’s Jewish history:

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Quick hit: Dinner in Kunming

Before we move on to Vietnam, I just want to point out one thing: in the 15+ months that I have lived in Kunming, I have increased my tolerance for spicey food by about a million times. This is because Yunnan takes a lot of cues in its cuisine from its northern neighbor Sichuan, but with a lot less subtlety. Basically, every meal I eat is spicy. I am, as the Chinese say, totally 厉害 (lihai, “way awesome”).

That said, the other night I ordered some take out food – a chicken dish that I knew would be a little spicy. What is pictured below is what I had to remove from the dish BEFORE I could put it into my mouth. This one goes out to you, NR. Dad, you may want to avert your eyes.

I'm lihai, but not this lihai.

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A Yid in Khine Strikes Again!

Greetings from Bangkok, chickens! I’ve been shuttling back and forth between a hotel room and a conference room for the past week, concerning myself with grand strategizing and teaming agreements, throwing around vast sums of money on spreadsheets and generally feeling extremely important, all on my organization’s dime.

Ah, the joys of the first expat business trip.

While I’m siting here consuming pad thai from room service, enjoy the most recent installment of everyone’s favorite Yiddish internet content, A Yid in Khine! To those of who are convinced that RP is actually is a spy – and there are quite a few of you out there – I submit this as (shaky) evidence that he is actually getting up to something legitimate in northwest Yunnan.

Originally posted on the Forverts website’s video channel.

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This is Not a Joke

Man, if I’d known you could get paid $1,000 a week to play Big Foreign Boss I wouldn’t have done it for free! From The Atlantic:

Rent a White Guy

Confessions of a fake businessman from Beijing

BY MITCH MOXLEY

NOT LONG AGO I was offered work as a quality-control expert with an American company in China I’d never heard of. No experience necessary—which was good, because I had none. I’d be paid $1,000 for a week, put up in a fancy hotel, and wined and dined in Dongying, an industrial city in Shandong province I’d also never heard of. The only requirements were a fair complexion and a suit.

“I call these things ‘White Guy in a Tie’ events,” a Canadian friend of a friend named Jake told me during the recruitment pitch he gave me in Beijing, where I live. “Basically, you put on a suit, shake some hands, and make some money. We’ll be in ‘quality control,’ but nobody’s gonna be doing any quality control. You in?”

I was.

And so I became a fake businessman in China, an often lucrative gig for underworked expatriates here. One friend, an American who works in film, was paid to represent a Canadian company and give a speech espousing a low-carbon future. Another was flown to Shanghai to act as a seasonal-gifts buyer. Recruiting fake businessmen is one way to create the image—particularly, the image of connection—that Chinese companies crave. My Chinese-language tutor, at first aghast about how much we were getting paid, put it this way: “Having foreigners in nice suits gives the company face.”

Read the full piece here.

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