Introduction (written in August 1998)
The entries in this diary are spontaneous, undiplomatic and likely to be regretted later. That's the nature of day to day living, especially in an unfamiliar culture and country. We all make as much sense of the world as we can. When it is a new world, the sense of the moment is often non-sense in retrospect, and the incomprehensible behaviour of foreigners ("them" or me, depending upon your starting point) may be perfectly logical within a framework of reality which we have not yet noticed or accepted.
I could have written what follows with ifs and buts and maybes. I could have left out the bits that might make me look dumb later, or that might offend friends who meant well. Well, personal names have been changed or eliminated. That is all though. It seems to me that the mistakes, the exasperation, even the paranoia sometimes, are part of the story. They give it freshness and authenticity. This writer will contradict himself, put his foot in his mouth. So what? If learning to live in a new culture is worth anything at all, it must mean that I will change and grow. Therefore dear reader, judge me if you will, but don't expect to find the same fellow here next time you call.
Happy reading, Thor.
Wuhan, China 1998
Table of Contents
Note: items appear in date order of writing from August 1998 to August 2000 + Postscripts
3. Language Reform in Revolutionary China
Language reform movements in China over the last hundred years have found both their motivations and limitations in divergent socio-political objectives . Language has been seen as a vehicle of social change, actual or potential, by reformers and conservatives alike. The apparent success of language reform programs has been closely tied to the fluctuating political fortunes of their protagonists. Pragmatic outcomes however have also been constrained by the fragmented nature of Chinese languages (plural) and dialects. To this day, an inconvenient reality is that a significant proportion of Chinese citizens cannot use standard Chinese (普通話), especially as spoken, while many others struggle with the standard form as a second language.
2. The Chinese Car of the Future (2005)
...a Chinese designer is trying to figure out the likely Chinese taste for automobiles in 2015. Along the way, our discussion touches upon some key ideas about what might make China tick...
1. Letter from a Chinese Postgraduate (2003)
You know, all the graduates in every college are going crazy now. More and more graduates select continuing study as their goals. The competition in the graduates' entrance examination is extremely fierce in China now. It's not because more people truly want to be scholars in the future, but because they are escaping the pressure of employment...
While his brother drove, my new mentor got into the back to be sociable. We shook hands, I gave him my card, and with fractional English he indicated that taxis were not a big money business. I said that my Y2500 a month wasn't so hot either. Having proved to be mutually human, this slightly fleshy young man did his best to show goodwill. He stood by patiently while I went through the traumatic discovery at the Dadushi Fundian that not only was the room rate Y400, but that they wanted 10% bed tax and a Y200 deposit, as well as the room charge in advance, cash. I didn't offer to tip the bell-boys...
2. A Dream of Red Mansions
Wx intimated that all the good things that were happening to me flowed from her unseen hand. She had personally sent Gx to the airport. A postgraduate would be put at my disposal to teach me Chinese. A second-hand bicycle would be found cheap. They would show me how to shop tomorrow. Each woman has undertaken to play matchmaker, and I am to choose between the brides in waiting. As payback their was a hint of many friends wanting their theses gone over...
3. WTUSM Welcome Dinner
Perhaps a half of the Chinese staff members present at the dinner spoke no English. Since the President decreed at the start of the meal that English was the medium, they were effectively struck dumb. The whole hierarchy of the Foreign Affairs Office was represented, including the man who invariably drives us on visits to shops etc. also had his place at the table. Perhaps he has some kind of security role as well (??)...
4. Bicycle Wars
Aha. Miss Gravelly Leather Face, like a general in the wings, had made her assessments on the changing tide of the battle. One dumb Long Nose she could stonewall; XB's male friends were an unwelcome reinforcement to the opposition, and called for a temporary tactical retreat. The professor's arrival, as an obvious blood ally of the enemy changed all the equations. Like the Original Celestial Jade Pure One, the Great Immortal overcame all opposition with a mere effortless sweep of his sleeve...
5. Barefoot Dentistry
She began to trot alongside in her old felt slippers. Stranger and stranger I thought. Suddenly the bike gave a violent lurch and started to weave across the road. My doctor had taken a flying leap onto the luggage rack...
6. Two Thousand Steps to the Mountain
It was the strangest meal I have ever shared. The small room was packed with ravenous teenagers, all slightly damp and cold, the floor was wet, the light dim. On a low table in the middle of the room they had dumped a couple of dozen plastic bags from various mums and roadside stalls. There was bean curd and puffed rice and a dozen kinds of unspeakable dried things, sweet bread, Snuckers (American) raspberry jam, jioutze (meat dumplings) and instant noodles ... There was a mess. It was the human zoo though that made this scene memorable. Chinese have to be the world's messiest eaters. They are also incredibly sociable. Amid the jostling and shouting and banter their darting chopsticks pushed food into the mouths, it seemed, of anyone who was within reach. I felt like a cuckoo in a nest of baby eaglets, and thanked my lucky stars for the my hepatitis shots...
7. Chinese Medley
The printed program was in Chinese, of course, and my attempts to get some kind of translation met with even more charming evasion than usual. The words were unfamiliar, my hostess said. I would naturally be able to tell THEM as soon as I heard the music. Hmm. I know what I like when I hear it, but my musical literacy is almost as sketchy as my Chinese literacy. The musical literati are apt to drift out of my presence with tight little smiles as I effortlessly fail their secret society passwords ... Here, in China, our mutually confused small talk might preserve my digity a little longer...
8. An Upper Middle Class Evening
Madam was playfully attired in a leotard and furry mini-skirt, with the paws of some kind of dead animal draped over her shoulders. She could, I decided at once, easily crack macadamia nuts between her thighs. Since the English language wasn't one of the things we had in common, we set the tone for the evening with some impromptu pantomime. To be properly respectful, I began to slip my shoes off. "Bu shi, bu shi ..." she shushed, pushing my feet back. "You can keep them on," advised GZ; "these are Westernized people."
9. Paralysis - The Core Problem with Chinese Universities
Not only do universities in China have no control over their syllabus content, they have no effective control over their staff or their budgetary allocations. Each Department has a (Communist) Party Secretary who often doubles as the personnel officer and controls appointment recommendations...
10. Foreign Experts Plant Trees
About five kilometres outside of Huangshi we crossed an invisible border, known only to the competing regional warlords (prefectural empires). Our Wuhan police greeted the waiting Huangshi forces with elaborate diplomatic courtesy, and we acquired a double VIP escort. To ensure that our status was impressed on the local yokels, from this five kilometre point at every hundred meters stood a police trooper, spick-and-span in his pressed uniform, white gloves, rigidly at attention and -- wait for it -- saluting us as we swept past...
11. Chinese Tooth Torture
12. Letter Home
13. New China: Reflections on Political Rage
14. Fake Dream
15. Living With China Upside Down and Backwards
16. A Red, Black & White Culture
18. Dining with the Governor
19. The Rag Trade
20. When a Dog is as Tall as a Man
21. The Outside Track on Happiness
22. Sinned Against
23. Horse Horse Tiger Tiger
24. Video Wisdom
25. City Traveler
26. Apples to Go
27. All's Fair
28. The Chinese Economic Union??
29. Mei Guanxi - Back with the Dentists
30. The General('s) Hospital
31.Interpreting China: Whimsy, where are you? 1999 … and now?
This snippet is clipped from my foreigner’s understanding of China in December 1999, on the cusp of the new millennium. At the time I was teaching at a university in Wuhan.(See Thor’s China Diary). The writer has mellowed a bit, older if not wiser. Noways in China they have bullet trains, and much more varied consumer choices than in 1999. Buildings are painted. There are signs that patches of the Chinese landscape are trying to slip out from beneath the grey smog of mass control. Real winds of change? Judge the weather for yourself.
32. The Photograph
33. Silence of the Elders
34.The Dialects of Wuhan
The Chinese provinces are a crazy patchwork quilt of languages and dialects, where the histories of migrations and cultural enclaves, the tides of influence from empire and commerce, the sperm trails that follow rivers and railway lines ... are recorded in a tangle of codes that no one has yet made a serious attempt to untangle. Note that these comments are obviously informal, not a part of systematic research. Chinese scholars themselves are now (2013) taking a much more thorough interest in dialects than was the case even in 2000.
35. Silk Barrier
36. A Business Proposal
37. Virtue versus the Quick Buck
38. Sisyphus and the Rock of Education
39. The Factory Visit
40. Scooter Babes
41. Notes on Cantonese
42. The Bamboo Cage
43. Goodies & Baddies
44. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king
45. Corruption in Chinese English exams (note from a reader)
46. The boarding kindergarten
47. Till Death Do Us Part
48. Dining Out on Laundry Soap
49. When is a Museum a Museum?
50. Honesty, Spirit and the Communist Way
51. The Bad Old Days of Planned Theft
52. Funeral by the Lake
53. Modern Dance Ballet
54. The Suit
56. Chinese Moments