Made in China, Part 2
Free speech is something of an oxymoron in China, since technically speaking, it doesn’t exist.
Lost in Translation – this is a huge recurring problem in China.
Have you ever been on one of those trips where shortly after arrival you wanted to leave? Have you ever been to a country where everything from the government to the culture annoyed you? That was China for me. Here are 3 more reasons why China sucked from the Top 10 Lessons I learned there:
4. You must learn some Chinese
Perhaps the single most frustrating thing about this entire experience for me was the language barrier. I must admit, Chinese is probably my least favourite language, largely because it’s the least straight forward of the five languages I’ve since learned to speak. Not even German was anywhere near as hard.
But even when I did manage to learn some everyday conversational language, I realised that I had to spend a great deal of time emphasizing the tonal inflections which makes a sequence of romanized letters mean one thing and not something else entirely. The pinyin (Chinese: “spelling”) did help some, since memorising unique Chinese characters was nothing short of a bitch.
Here’s the thing:
When you enunciate in Chinese, you have to get the tones right. To us English speakers, irrespective of how you pronounce a word, we always know what the word is because it is always spelled the same, with very minor differences across cultures. For example, the word is spelled “skepticism” in the USA but is spelled scepticism in the U.K. So the spelling doesn’t really matter in this case.
Either way, it sounds the same to all English speakers – even with a British, Australian, Yankee or Jamaican accent. Not so in Chinese. The Chinese language has MANY words which are spelled the same way phonetically using Romanised letters. However, the tonal inflections (as dictated by the special notations in pinyin), make all the difference. So one has to be very careful.
If you get the tonal inflection wrong on a vowel in a word, it may mean the difference between saying “Hello” and (impolitely) asking for sex. What’s worse is that each tonal inflection is represented by a different Chinese character – which look positively nothing like each other, even though they are phonetically similar. This was the single hardest part of learning Chinese.
Can someone tell me what a “Daughter Toilet” is?
Even though I managed to learn enough Chinese to make the daily rounds, the language barrier was still an everyday problem. The most annoying part was not dealing with people who spoke no English at all. It was dealing with those who were “fluent” at English, who really didn’t understand you at all.
I remember one colleague sharing an ordeal where he was trying to order a special combination of Fried Rice from Room Service. First, he emphasized that he wanted “NO BACON” in his meal. His meal came back with extra bacon. Then he returned it and specified that he only wants the fried rice with the other items, but no bacon. This time around, the meal came back with ONLY bacon.
How he did not shoot the room service guide was beyond me.
He did finally get his meal the way he ordered it, after maybe several other failures in communication. That’s the trouble with the language barrier in China. If your mother tongue is English, there is virtually no similarity between the languages, and so if you err in the slightest, the message is totally lost.
What was even more so provoking, is that the Chinese who do speak English have such a poor grasp of the language, that you have to dumb down your vocabulary and speak like a young child, otherwise they will not understand you. I would have rather that their English was spotty. Pointing and gesticulating seems to be far more effective than speaking quasi-English.
If you spoke Mongolian, Korean or even Thai, you’d have a much better shot at communicating with the Chinese as a neophyte of the language. If you’re not speaking any of its sister languages, you are effectively screwed if you have to deal with any Chinese nationals outside of the educated business districts.
What the …?
Chinese doesn’t even use the same grammatical rules as English. So inference doesn’t work either. An English speaker can make inference from Spanish, French and Italian, since they all share a Latin root. You can even make some inferences from German speakers (if you listen carefully) – not so with Chinese.
If you spoke Japanese however, you wouldn’t have to speak at all. Just write what you want to communicate and you’ll be fine. That’s because Japanese and Chinese writing is virtually identical (more on this later). Since I can read Japanese kanji, it helped me a great deal in learning the Chinese language.
However, if even I as a pseudo-neophyte had such a hard time communicating in everyday language with the Chinese, I can only imagine those who have extended stays in the country who speak no other language aside from their mother tongue. Suffice to say, if you have an extended stay in China, you must (and this is not a suggestion), you MUST learn to speak at least some Chinese.
It’s not like in Japan where you can get away with speaking mostly English and some spotty Japanese. Most Japanese nationals have been exposed to some English. Thanks to foreign English teachers like my good friend Dave, Japan will become a fully bilingual society within the space of roughly another generation.
Not so in China. Their attitude is: “Speak Chinese or GTFO“.
Check out the sign on the left. Pic taken in downtown Shanghai. Epic Win.
If not only to help you out with the daily routine, it goes a long way to ensure that nobody can talk behind your back in front of your face. You’d be surprised how often I caught Chinese speaking about me right in front of me (usually in an elevator). When I interjected to them in Chinese, the flushed cheeks and hung heads that accompanied their tepid embarrassment was most priceless.
That will teach them to talk behind my back, behind my back.
5. Don’t compare the Chinese and Japanese – Ever.
Which of these men is Chinese, Japanese or Korean? Can you tell?
Do you think you can tell the difference between the Japanese and the Chinese? If you know enough of them, you might be able to – about 40% of the time. The other 60% of the time you’d be wrong and you’d be pissing off quite a significant number of Chinese and Japanese nationals along the way.
While attending a banquet for one of local tech companies in Wujing (one of the few occasions we had decent food), we were privy to share a table with a couple of Chinese businessmen. After they taught me how to use chopsticks, we engaged in a most intriguing and yet, ultimately unpleasant discussion.
First of all, I gotta admit, it was my fault. Youthful exuberance and naivete probably had a lot to do with it. It began, quite innocently when I started to compare the Chinese Hanzi (i.e. Chinese writing) to the Japanese Kanji. This was when I finally realised that the writing systems were virtually identical.
As it turns out, that was a bad conversation topic.
I should’ve known I was going down the wrong road when I asked the older of the two gentlemen if he’s ever been to Japan. The tone of his voice when he said “no” should have been the first sign. But being the retard that I was, I pressed on. I was eager to determine how the Chinese system worked.
Japan is only a few hundred miles east of Shanghai. For someone to have lived on the East coast of China for the last 57 years, have been to the USA and Europe but has never travelled just across the East China Sea to Japan was perplexing to me. Never the less, I did not pursue that intriguing plot point.
I continued the conversation that I could read Japanese and that I kept seeing a lot of Chinese characters that were (for all intent and purposes) identical to Japanese characters. For example, I noted that the Chinese Hanzi for “month” is the Japanese Kanji for “moon”. The Chinese Hanzi for “day” is the Japanese Kanji for “Sun”. The similarities between Hanzi and Kanji are quite striking.
However, the older gentleman was not amused.
“No, no. That’s Chinese. The Japanese are using Chinese writing” he said. “The Japanese use our language. We not use theirs. The Japanese are Chinese.” and on he went. I could tell at this point that I had touched on a sore point with this older gentlemen. It took a week or so for me to finally find out why.
The Nanking Massacre
In 1937, the Imperial Japanese army invaded China, captured Nanking, the former capital of China, killed several hundred thousand citizens and raped upwards of 80,000 women. The incident became known as the Nanjing Massacre and has been a sore point of contention between the countries for the last 70+ years. Only in December, 2009, has Japan officially acknowledged and apologised for the incident. Even reparations were made in that regard.
While, the wounds have not completely healed in China, don’t be too quick to feel bad for the Chinese. They were equally as unforgiving when they repelled the Imperial Japanese Army out of Shanghai. The Nanjing incident was apparently an act of reprisal by the Japanese for the Shanghai massacre.
So for years, Japanese nationals have been denying that the Nanjing incident ever occurred, and it has pissed off the Chinese for decades. So can you imagine a clueless foreigner daring to compare anything Japanese and Chinese? Between the inherent superiority complex among the Japanese (they think they have bigger brains than the Chinese) and the Chinese bitterness against Japanese egoism, you can’t win – and they won’t let you forget it.
I barely managed to recover our conversation when they noticed my sudden prowess with the chopsticks. The younger gentleman didn’t seem to be as much bothered by my comparing the similarities between the writing system of Japan and China. But he did leave me some sage advice about human nature:
He: “So can you tell the difference between Japanese and Chinese?“
Me: “Sure. The Japanese have more chiseled cheekbones, more oval eyes, are generally shorter and fairer in complexion.“
He smiled, and pulled out his laptop and navigated to the following website: http://alllooksame.com/. At the top of the page, there’s an exam room (you have to register). There are several tests that you can take. The first one is the most intriguing and is the one I was asked to do. You’re required to see if you can tell the difference between Chinese, Japanese and Korean nationals.
Me: “Umm, I really can’t tell the difference between Koreans and Chinese.“
Him: “It doesn’t matter. I just want to prove a point.“
After guessing through the 18 pictures, my score was automatically tabulated. I only got seven of them right: two Chinese, three Japanese and one Korean. I got all the rest of them wrong – and to think, I was so sure of my generalised descriptions. Needless to say, I was duly embarrassed. I realised that while I could differentiate Japanese better, I still couldn’t differentiate effectively.
Him: “Foreigners come to China and they always think they know the difference, but they don’t. The truth is, even Han Chinese can’t tell the difference. Japanese and Chinese share the same bloodline. We are all the same people. Foreigners trying to tell the difference between Japanese and Chinese is the same as a Chinese trying to tell the difference between German and American. We are all the same people. We no different.“
And that is the truth. Even so, I bet he couldn’t say that with the old man around. Either way, the lesson is to never assume. It’s usually more polite to ask what nationality an Asian national is, even if it appears to be obvious where they’re from. Never make it obvious that you can’t tell the difference.
At that point, my consciousness was raised by at least 3 IQ points. I felt very foolish, but simultaneously very enlightened. The truth is, I wouldn’t be able to differentiate between Caribbean nationals just by looking either. I guess it’s the same way how we always picture the globe with North America on top, oblivious to the fact that in south east Pacific countries, globes have Australia on top. Tunnel vision affects the best of us, even with the best of intentions.
I was reminded of a very important lesson that night: Even though their architecture, cultures, language and genetics all share near identical qualities, this cultural identity that Japan and China seek to preserve demonstrates a naturally narrow minded quality of human nature whereby individualism is valued over community – and it’s not limited to developed Asian territories.
Can you tell which pagoda is Chinese, which is Japanese and which is Korean?
There is a similar contention between Jamaicans and the rest of the Caribbean. Whenever most foreigners think of the Caribbean, they think of Jamaica. Whenever most people this side of the world think of Asia, they show a great deal of preference for Japan. Similarly, when Caribbean folk think of the United States, they mostly think of either New York City or Miami.
While Jamaica, Japan and New York have become cultural icons of their respective communities, their neighbours are not quite so amused. I now realise that no one in China likes to think that Japan is the “it” place to be in Asia. Similarly, I don’t think the folks in The Bahamas, Antigua, Trinidad or Barbados are amused when foreigners confuse them with Jamaicans.
Even though Jamaica never invaded any of their CARICOM neighbours and New York never enslaved Connecticut or New Jersey, their neighbours’ reaction to being confused with those geographical icons is not significantly less contemptuous. As such, I’m sure the people of China’s sense of individualism was only being warped by the Nanjing Massacre incident.
The only difference is that if you multiply that facet of human nature by 1.3 billion people, then you’ll have something else on your hands. I don’t doubt that China has some serious power under it’s wings, but it sure as ever ain’t no Japan. Not by a long shot. That old man just needs to take his meds.
6. The internet is heavily censored
China has an incredibly efficient system of government. Communism knocks the pants of Democracy (at least, the American Congressional version of it) any day of the week when it comes to getting stuff done. There are no pointless, drawn out debates, no filler busters or any other such time wasting concerns.
If you want to see how socialism makes life a dream for a people, just have a look at Shanghai. They have socialised health care, education, housing (yes, housing!), construction (there’s a bank dedicated to just construction!), telecommunications – you name it. There’s a social service for it in China.
The beauty about their model however, is that private entities are allowed to compete with the government. Private entities will usually give you a higher quality of service and the demand is always there. In fact, China is proof that most Republicans are only blowing hot air about socialized health care.
…but I digress. The point is that I can see the merit in Communism. It’s demerits however, are not far behind.
There was a notable dry spell on this blog during the December / January period due to what I have now come to understand as an effort by the Chinese government to inhibit (as best as possible) the ability for anyone to communicate to the west the true nature of what really goes down in China.
So they blocked WordPress.com.
…and [insert popular social networking / blog site here - on ad infinitum]
In fact, I distinctly remember trying to Google some information on the incident at Tienanmen Square in Beijing, and something rather odd happened. The first hit that came up was from Wikipedia.org. But try as I might, I could not get Wikipedia to load. So I figured they also blocked Wikipedia. I was ticked.
So I typed in http://www.Wikipedia.org into my address bar, and surprisingly, the site loaded. Perplexed, I then searched within Wikipedia for some article on the Tienanmen Square incident, and like that, the article loaded. So as it turns out, I could load the article from within Wikipedia, but oddly not from Google.
What’s really going to knock your socks off, is that I tried the same search in Google.com yet again, and you know what? The Wikipedia.org hit did not come up this time. In fact, the search results this time around for the exact same search parameters, yielded far fewer hits. Now I was really pissed at China.
http://www.Google.cn won’t be available in China for much longer.
It was during my stay in China that I then found out that Google and the Chinese government were in a row about the very same thing. When government sanctioned Chinese hackers broke into the Gmail accounts of some human rights activists, that was the last straw for Google. Now they’re pulling out of China after bending over backwards to accommodate China’s censorship requests – which explains the weird Wikipedia issue I described.
At this point in time, I no longer cared about how efficient Chinese communism was nor how well Chinese socialism took care of its people. For the first time in my life, I felt like a honest to goodness Republican, ready to throw a tea party and what not – even though I knew it would effectively amount to nothing.
Now you know why China appears to be so closed off to the rest of the world. China, like many of its neighbouring communist or dictatorship states, is still in the habit of trying to control its people – even via the internet. Free speech is something of an oxymoron in China, since technically speaking, it doesn’t exist.
The Great Firewall of China
There’s a centralised government internet service provider through which all others market their service. Through this central point, the Chinese government regulates and actively monitors all internet traffic. In fact, after I posted about my being Shanghaied in Shanghai, my blog suddenly vanished. China’s internet service sits behind what is now colloquially known as The Great Firewall of China. (Google it) This is the largest known internet firewall.
The best alternative that I’ve found is called UltraSurf. It’s not a website, but rather a desktop program that hides your pc and its destination sites from the Chinese internet gateway. What you should also note is that the UltraSurf Website is also blocked in China. So you’ll have to use a proxy to get to it or optionally download and install it long before you get on the plane to China.
Not surprisingly, while almost every opinion page, blog, social networking and porn site was effectively blocked by the Chinese government, (I can’t really complain about the porn), every single software pirating website was still available. From Bittorrent indexers to RapidShare networks – they’re all there.
Double standards aside, I wasn’t liking having to surf the internet in such a clandestine manner. To be honest, I felt “digitally caged”, to coin a phrase. So I promised myself that I was going to rip China a new one once I got back safely to the democratic west. The whole world is going to know how much the Chinese government fears the universal human right to freedom of speech.
…especially when it doesn’t support them.
You see, they didn’t block Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and WordPress etc. because of fears their people would be wasting time. They have their own equivalent knock off websites that look and function just like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, WordPress etc. I mean, you shouldn’t be surprised, this is China we’re talking about. They haven’t had a single original idea since inventing kites and gunpowder. Not even Kung Fu was originally their idea.
But again, I digress…
Rather, the Chinese government blocked these websites because they want to stifle the ability for political watchdog groups within the country from gaining sympathy from the outside world (and by this I mean everywhere outside of China), which would then put pressure on the Chinese government to change its dirty ways …and believe me, their government has some really dirty ways.
In fact, I’m being told that the Chinese government panicked when they couldn’t stifle news about the Tienanmen Square incident getting out. That incident led to much of the freedom China’s citizens enjoy today – even though their government banned the movie “Avatar” for fears that it would rally the people into another rebellion like what happened in Tienanmen Square.
You see? China gives communism a bad name (or is it the other way around?)
If you’re a foreigner planning to visit China, don’t rely on your ability to update your Facebook page with pictures you took while there. Forget about using Twitter. China won’t allow its citizens to commit the same act of digital treason that Iran’s people did when Ahmadinejad stole the country’s elections – and if that seems strange to you that they let visitors suffer for the “bad”, rest assured, they don’t give a flying cuss, and there’s little you can do about it.
Thankfully, Iran has been hacking Chinese Government sites for a while. I always liked those Iranians. Really nice people, I tell you. Furthermore, newer and better proxy servers are being mounted all the time. They may be a tad slow loading certain sites, but they work and that’s all that really matters.
If you’re a roaming BlackBerry user however, you will note that the internet blockade won’t affect you. I don’t know how or why, but such is the case. I will give Research in Motion credit for somehow bypassing Chinese government protocol. I’m not a BlackBerry fan, but that capability is still pretty awesome.
If you’re planning to visit China soon however, you may want to check if your favourite websites have been blocked before you get on the plane. One tool I found quite useful is named after the Great Firewall of China itself and can be accessed at http://www.thegreatfirewallofchina.org. It will come in very handy.
End of Part 2
Social oppression aside, China wasn’t very kind to my lungs. In retrospect, there are some mistakes you don’t get a second chance to make. They take care of your membership to the gene pool the first time you make them. China almost became such a mistake for me. The third part of the top 10 things I learned about China should adequately illustrate this point. So if I haven’t convinced you to not go to China yet, trust me. Part 3 most certainly will.
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