Things I Love About China: Reflections on Summer 2007

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Coming home
On Friday, my two-month stay here in China comes to a close, and I return home to San Francisco and Stanford. With a few minutes here and there between packing, going away dinners, and a magical trip to the post office (nothing like shipping 4,000 RMB worth of books), I thought I’d reflect on my present and past trips to the PRC. Here are roughly forty of the things I love most about living and working in China. (There is no order whatsover to this list, mind you.)
玉米冰淇淋: After eating corn ice cream for the first time, one is inclined to raise one’s skinny fists towards the heavens and ask, “What else have You been hiding from me?”
“对对对对对对对…” Foreigners love to agree in China, because it allows us to use the machine gun-like expression “Dui dui dui dui dui dui dui…” (Translation: “Correct, correct, correct, correct, correct, correct…”). I’ve had entire conversations in which these were the only sounds I uttered.
“厕所里放挂钟-有始有终”: Jokes in other languages are often funnier than jokes in your mother tongue. I think this stems from two seeds. First, when you “get” a joke in Chinese, you feel proud. Not only did you have to understand the meaning of the words, but you had to do so rapidly. The sound of one’s own honest, heartfelt laughter doubles as a badge of honor. Secondly, each language is equipped with its own unique ways of crafting jokes. In Chinese, for example, the multiplicity of homophonic characters allows for a whole host of double entendres, my favorite of which is 厕所里放挂钟-有始有终 (rather than translating, I’ll let you conduct your own search).
柚子: My single favorite thing about living in Chengdu was probably Chinese grapefruit (youzi). These behemoths are something like three times the size of grapefuits back home, not to mention half as sour and twice as sweet. Many a night did I dine on the flesh of youzi.
“那个那个那个那个…” As with unique forms of jokes, each language has it own unique forms of stuttering as well. I still remember learning 那个那个那个那个… (“That, that, that, that, that…) in 1998. I’ve been abusing it ever since.
“It just looks like a crescent”: Some of the best Chinese-English signs involve typos or awkward phrasings. In other cases, their brilliance is far more subtle. I encountered a new favorite at Mingshashan and the Crescent Lake, just outside of Dunhuang, Gansu. In explaining the origins of the name Crescent Lake, the English sign foregoes all poetry and gets right to the point: “It just looks like a crescent.”


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In Stanford’s PKU office, my haven
北京: Second in my heart only to New York, Beijing is perhaps the number one reason why I ended up pursuing a Ph.D. in Chinese history. From the moment I arrived in 1998, I just loved the rhythm and attitude of life here. Moreover, no matter how many thousands of buildings get torn down, and no matter how many glass montrosities take their place, Beijing is still Beijing. It has incredible depth.
Master英语: During my first two weeks in China in 1998, I blew practically all of my spending money on the typical fare: teapots, a statue of the Buddha, wooden fans… all of those items which, for the beginning visitor, are practically required purchases. Having run out of money, there was a stretch of time in which I subsisted on edamame (毛豆) and bottled water. I still remember practicing Chinese characters in my oven of a dorm room, while sitting shirtless next to an electric fan and a steaming pot of salted soybeans. Luckily, those days ended once I picked up work at Master English, a small school near the Beijing Zoo.
苏州: Being the very first place I stayed during my first trip in 1998, Suzhou was my window to China. Although my visit was brief, and I’ve yet to return, it still occupies a special place in my heart.
红薯: Come the end of summer, you can expect to see lines of sweet potato vendors setting up shop along the roadside. The sight is unmistakable: a middle-aged man with a massive metal drum, atop which sits the most delicious, golden nuggets you’ll ever want to shove in your mouth. Incidentally, this is also one of my Brother’s favorite memories from China. I’m pretty sure that, to this day, he still remembers how to say it in Chinese.
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In Dali, Yunnan, about to get “toasted” (literally) by a grad student
成都: Chengdu was my home briefly in 2003, at the beginning of my dissertation research. To me, Chengdu is one of the “sleeper hits” of China, a city just drenched in history. Plus, it has a style and pace all its own, which simultaneously felt refreshing (life is much slower in Chengdu than in Beijing) and infuriating (having lived in New York for a few years by then, I was not used to people strolling leisurely along the sidewalks). The thing I think of when I think of Chengdu, however, are the teashops. Go to any park in Chengdu and you will find an outdoor teashop, where people spend hours relaxing, talking, playing cards, eating sunflower seeds, and rattling Mahjong tiles.
十字路口: Intersections in China would make a game theorist cry: a mad but logical multi-player dash for the other side, complete with massive trucks, buses, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians vying for turf. It is also the site that, more often than not, prompts Beijing cabbies to pontificate about the low suzhi or “quality” of their fellow countrymen. Apparently, one of the biggest indications of low suzhi is jaywalking. Others include spitting and smoking, from what I’ve been instructed.
昆明: I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Kunming four times now, and I like it more each time. Beyond the weather, which everyone immediately brings up when you mention the city, it’s just a fantastic place to live and work.
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With the support of Donald Sutton, I complied with the rules of “getting toasted” and finished the entire glass of Tibetan Catholic Monk Red Wine
西旦图书大厦: Perhaps the first mega bookstore in Beijing, this is one of those places that makes a scholar of China drool. It’s not that the books are particularly old – they’re all secondary sources – but there are just so many of them. Moreover, one can find the most amazing reference collections here, including dictionaries of obscure topics you would be hard-pressed to track down in the States (let alone buy). The store has since been accompanied by a host of other large booksellers, but this one was first.
干家口: Ganjiakou was, circa the late 1990s, one of the centers of Uighur cuisine in Beijing. The moment one stepped out of the cab, about thirty young men in white, button-down shirts would grab some part of your body (nowhere too questionable) in an attempt to get you into their establishment. The restaurants had numbers but no names, and if I remember correctly, my personal favorite was No. 17. There was a waiter there who, although probably fifteen, smoked like a sixty-year-old retired sailor and had this wicked method for opening Yanjing Beer bottles with a pair of wooden chopsticks.
北京首都国际机场: The two best days of any China trip are always the day I arrive and the day I head home. The one brings with it all the excitement and anticipation of the trip to come, the second all the comfort of reconnecting with old friends, workmates, and family. And for that reason, Beijing Capitol International Airport is definitely one of my favorite spots in China.
杂剧: Although its popularity is limited mainly to foreign visitors, Acrobratics in China is still pretty freakin’ amazing. Once you let go of all the obvious questions (what life must be like for the troupe, whether this is something people should be doing to their bodies, etc.), there is no denying that the spectacle is unlike anything else you’ve ever seen in person.
洗头按摩: No, no, no, not that type of massage. These are the 15 RMB versions where, for about an hour, all the tension that has built up in your head and shoulders simply evaporates, and you’re sent into a trance-like state. Oh yeah, and at the end, some fella takes about five minutes to give you a quick trim.
VCD: Although they are quickly disappearing, VCDs were once a source of comfort and pleasure for us foreign visitors. One could enjoy them on multiple levels: from the movie itself, to the computer-translated dust jacket precis (which read like Dadaist poems), to the ubiquitous “Big Chinese Head” that obstructed most pirater’s video cameras.
My Professors: Life in China has consistently be made possible, and more wonderful, by 杨老师, 王老师, 郎老师, and 罗博士.
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Caught in a Dali rainstorm
服务员: Formerly summoned using the now-taboo term xiaojie (小姐), “service personnel” in China put up with a lot. For the most part, they are treated like second-class citizens, blamed when the food comes slightly late and invisible when it comes on time. Most infuriating are those foreigners who, in a bizarre form of hypermimesis, attempt to out-local the locals by treating the waiters and waitresses (most the latter) even worse.
司机: If you’re wondering about love, work, school, the future, marriage, the past, philosophy, linguistics, Beijing, Communism, Iraq, 9/11, the future, Bush, Sino-American relations, the 2008 Olympics, or practically anything else, just ask a Beijing cabbie. If you want to know how good your Chinese is, don’t bother because I already know what he’s going to say: “It’s great. So much better than that other foreigner I drove around last week. His Chinese sucked. Yours is so much better.”
腰果鸡丁: Cashew Chicken makes Kung Pao Chicken seem as dull as Sweet & Sour Chicken. That’s how good it is, people.
八宝茶: Eight Treasure Tea is served in a very particular fashion. First, you place the eight special ingredients (rock sugar, tea leaves, …) in your tea cup. Then you sit in prayer as your waiter uses a cannon-like tea pot to project a tube of scalding hot water in your general direction from a distance of about seven feet. Somehow, he never misses. Like pole vaulting, juggling chainsaws, and other do-or-die feats, it’s of the those talents that makes you wonder: how exactly does one learn to do this without anyone getting killed in the process?
北京烤鸭: Peking Duck. No need to explain.
董先生&胡先生: Mr. Dong and Mr. Hu were our centrally appointed guides in 1998 during our whirlwind tour of China. Over time, I think the dozen of us students really grew on them. For some reason, a running joke developed between me and Mr. Hu where I would go out of my way to use overly formal language to describe the most mundane of things. Instead of saying that a dish smelled “good,” for instance, I would turn to him and say “Ahhhh, fragrant (芳香)!” He found it funny, so I stuck to that joke like white on rice.
北师大: I like to think of Beijing Normal University as my 母校, even though I only studied there for seven short months as a language student. I visited there during my first week back, and ran into one of the same store clerks who worked there back in 1998. “Did you used to work here nine years ago,” I asked, somewhat hesitantly. “Yes,” she replied. “I knew it! I was a student here then. I still remember you.” RESULT: A VERY BIG SMILE.
亚洲之星: Asia Star, in Beijing, is a great place for a first date.
“酒吧?” “走吧.” When you’re a student in China, you start to make up expressions which are only funny (and intelligible) to a select group of your foreign friends. This is one of them. The first part translate as “Bar?” (As in: “Bar, Shall we go to a…?”) The second translates as “Let’s go.” The reasons it’s funny is, well, that it sort of rhymes. The more I write about this, though, the less funny it gets. As the saying goes, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”
“Feel like Chinese?”: A question we liked to pose before heading out for dinner.
速溶咖啡: Nescafe is simultaneously (a) the source of 24% of all my energy while in China and (b) the reason why my internet history includes one WebMD search for “Diabetes.”
中央民族大学: Central University of Nationalities was the site of many a milestone for me: the place where I wrote my first published articles, the place where my first big breakthroughs happened with the dissertation, and some other things as well.
面的(面包车): In 1998, Beijing roads used to be dotted with small, white mini-van cabs which cost next to nothing and which, thanks to an innovative breadloaf-design first invented in the Tang dynasty, could accommodate an infinite number of passengers in a finite amount of space. It was ideal for two things: (a) returning home en masse from the bars and (b) shepherding your non-Chinese-speaking family around Beijing without fear of getting split up (nice cabs had a maximum capacity of four). These beaut’s have since disappeared.
国家图书馆: China’s National Library, just down the street from the Central University for Nationalities, was my “home away from home away from home” in 2003.
Anger Hotel: See my previous post for this humdinger.
鱼香肉丝: A heavenly pork dish.
香山: A must for anyone who is in Beijing come Autumn. When the leaves change color, it’s one of the most beautiful places in the country.
秋天: After three months of unceasing heat and humidity, the arrival of Fall is by far the most wonderful time to live in Beijing. Cool days, cooler nights, and clear skies.
网吧: It’s always fun to be the only person in a Chinese internet cafe who isn’t either chatting online or captivated by some sort of multi-player wargame. As my immediate neighbors blew each other up, I would type “Dear Mom and Dad,…” I’m a lover, not a fighter.
22路: The bus line that took us to and fro Beijing Normal. A young dude could always be seen and heard hanging out the side of the bus, yelling “22路, 22路, 22路!” Music to my ears.
燕京啤酒: Yanjing Beer is, without a doubt, the best beer for your money. To express my love, let me put it this way: if 燕京啤酒 were to take human form, I would propose marriage. As for now, though, I hear she’s been seeing some guy named 青岛.
See you all soon,
Thomas S. Mullaney
Assistant Professor
Department of History
Stanford University

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One Response to “Things I Love About China: Reflections on Summer 2007”

  1. Darren says:

    Hey – I enjoyed reading this. A very open account of a trip to China. Very enlightening.

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