Beijing 2008: Cultural, Culinary and Linguistic (Mis)Adventures

Around January of this year, my friend Randall and I started to discuss the possibility of visiting China for the Beijing 2008 Olympics. Randall had been taking Chinese lessons for some time, and I was itching for an excuse to start them myself. After some back-and-forthing over phone and email, we carpe’d the diem on February 27, when Randall purchased a brace of plane tickets to the Imperial City. Alea iacta est — the die is cast; can’t go back.We would arrive in Beijing on Sunday, August 3, five days before the opening ceremonies of the Games of the 29th Olympiad.

Before I launch into the story, you should recognize that neither Randall nor I is a rabid sports fan. In fact, we couldn’t be bothered about organized sports at all. Our interest was in seeing China, breathing its air (but not too much), eating its food (way too much), practicing its language, and witnessing the spectacle of the games up close. And if we caught an event or two, even better.

Having attended the Games in Athens in 2004, I just wanted to marinate in the unique atmosphere the Olympics create: revelry and friendly competition between all nations; being amidst some of the most talented, hard-working, accomplished young folks on the planet; witnessing the spectacle of human achievement; seeing which country’s fans got wasted the most. Athens was an amazing experience, and I was eager to repeat it Beijing-style. As it turns out, Athens also became the touchstone by which Beijing would be judged, as Greece and China went about hosting the world’s biggest party in dramatically different ways.

Incheon our way to Beijing

If for some reason the story of our trip were to be read in Mrs Golding’s English class, she’d say that our stopover at Seoul/Incheon International Airport was an example of foreshadowing. Why? Seoul was awarded the hosting of the 1988 Olympics. At the time, Korea was at best a developing nation, their most visible product being Hyundai cars, famous for being a tin can on wheels. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has a slightly mischievous habit of awarding the Games to countries that have a vision of being ready for it but aren’t quite yet. This corresponds roughly to the management technique of holding your employees to a higher standard than they hold themselves, and thereby propelling them to greater heights of achievement, hoping they can make it. Hence, the Olympics as catalyst for bringing Korea into the modern age.

Twenty years on, it would seem as if the gambit worked. Samsung and LG are world-renowned brands, Hyundai makes some of the most reliable cars on the planet (with a new 375-horsepower luxury model that just came out stateside), and Korea is officially the most connected country on Earth, with more broadband connections per capita than anywhere else (and a videogame-obsessed populace that has professional leagues). We did not get a chance to head into town, but we did get to hang out at the airport’s Cultural Experience Zone, which I’m sure is just as good. I mean, look at the sign! And the traditionally-dressed lady!

Having an authentic Korean experience

Moreover, I can tell you that the airport was a gleaming, spotless piece of work — a hell of a lot nicer and user-friendlier than any Heathrow, Kennedy, or Frankfurt am Main. Free internet access, excellent food at the restaurants, and seats comfortable to sleep on took the sting out of our long layovers, making them almost pleasant.

Also, a quick thank-you note to Korean Airlines for providing the best flight experience in recent memory. The entertainment system was excellent, allowing me to catch up on my summer movies (Kung Fu Panda, Smart People and Iron Man).The authentic Korean food was downright edible, the seats were napworthy, and the flight attendants way cute.

As a reminder of our destination, we were sharing our flight with the Polish handball team. These lankily muscular, handsome fellows were all clad in bright-red Polska-emblazoned uniforms — which made them particularly easy to spot when they made up half the population of the smoking room in the airport.

Asserting hegemony over the food chain, or eating random stuff we probably shouldn’t have

Randall and I made a pact at the beginning of the trip to eat at least one item that we’ve never eaten before every day.This proved to be really easy to do — the adventurousness of our palate and utter disregard for gastrointestinal comfort were the only limits.

Our Lonely Planet guide provided an appetizing description of Wangfujing snack street, just off the main Wangfujing shopping drag, with its street vendors of skewers of various tasty meats, fruits and desserts. So we were off. We walked around in the sweltering 36C (97F) heat, checking out all these skewers piled up on top of each other, without a whole lot of refrigeration in sight. And the crazy thing was, the locals were buying this stuff by the dozen. There was the familiar — pork, chicken, squid. There was the out-of-the-ordinary — chicken hearts, kidneys, crabs, funny little fish. And then there was the exotic — seahorses, starfish, cicada larvae, and scorpions. Not just scorpions, mind you, but live scorpions. When you flicked the skewer, the scorpions wiggled. Freaky-neat.

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At this point, any sensible human being would go, “Wow, that’s really cool,” and, it being the very first day of the trip, proceed to get a coconut and some fried rice, and sit down for a facsimile of a normal meal to ease himself into this strange land. Which is why we ordered the fresh scorpion. The vendor dunked them in reassuringly hot oil, fried the bugs and handed them to us. We each ate two, which provided us with enough proof of concept: scorpion’s rich, and like cricket or bee, tastes like greasy fries.

Our culinary guide for the first evening was our Harvard dorm-mate Wei, who graciously hosted us at his super-nice pad in what we found out later was the best area in town. Namely, the Chaoyang district, prime expat hangout. He took us to a Sichuan spot that same night, a stone’s throw from the pad, on Chunxiu Lu.

Here, he introduced us to the concept of shuizhuyu (roughly pronounced shoe-ay joo yu) — literally, water-boiled fish. Except that the fish — the whole fish, and nothing but the fish — is really boiled in a vast vat of oil, along with a bunch of veggies, spices, onions, whole garlic cloves and blazing-hot spices, all served in a bigass platter.The oil is infused with four-alarm chili peppers and black peppercorns that make your mouth numb, or ma. Hence the term mala, ‘numb and spicy’, the hallmark of Sichuan cuisine. For some strange reason, this Sichuan speciality, common as corn, is hard to come by in U.S. restaurants. In any case, the fish was delectable, and we had the dish a few more times over the course of our visit. Note: your wimpy American innards will probably react violently to this lively concoction for the succeeding 2-3 days (the term volcanic comes to mind), but you should be fine after that. Maybe.

On a side note, over our travels, I found that eating the food nibble-by-nibble with chopsticks allowed us to appreciate and savor it better. It also slows down the rate of food consumption since you can only stuff your face so fast with two sticks (especially if you happen to be a clumsy white dude).

Physiologists believe that the satiety signal the gastrointestinal tract sends to the brain telling it “you’ve devoured enough calories to fuel two marathons; stop already” comes from the duodenum. Food takes about 15 minutes to get to the duodenum, so if you eat food that’s too rich too fast — eminently achievable with the use of fork, knife and spoon, which are like power tools compared to chopsticks — you run the risk of overshooting the satiety signal’s calorie limit. If you do this chronically, you end up with a nation of fat people (e.g. the US). Chinese people seem predominantly slim (for now) in spite of their greasy cuisine, and I’m thinking it has to do with their tendency to walk and bike around, the still-low prevalence of Western-style junk food, their reverence for mealtimes — and the Chopstick Factor. Move over, French Paradox. You heard it here first.

Back to the food. A brief primer on Chinese cuisine: As would be expected of a nation as vast as the US and four times as populous, there’s quite a variety of food in China. Northern (e.g. Beijing) cuisine tends to be fried and salty. Southern (Cantonese) cuisine is more intricate and flavorful, the haute-cuisine of the land, reserving the right to make fun of the rest. Uighur (pronounced WE-gur) is Muslim cuisine — lamb- and beef-intensive and pork-free. Western (Sichuan) cuisine is spicy as hell, and Eastern (Shanghai) cuisine is obsessed with pickling things. A Chinese saying encapsulates it thus: dong suan, xi la, nan tian, bei xian (East sour, West spicy, South sweet, North salty).

Every restaurant we visited handed us a novel-length menu, replete with full-color photos of every item, and the (occasionally) useful English description. Strange and borderline contraband delicacies abounded — abalone, giant whelk, shark’s fin soup, sea cucumber. I’ve never seen so many over-$100 menu items anywhere before (some of them up to $500). Where do these items come from, why are they so pricey, and who eats them?

Sea cucumbers are sea-floor creatures, and they’re caught with bottom-dragging nets, which wantonly destroy entire habitats at a time. And fishermen kill whole sharks, magnificent top predators of the sea, just to harvest a stringy, cartilaginous fin. These and other items like tiger penis, which don’t necessarily taste all that good, achieved delicacy status through their supposed aphrodisiac power (NB: There is no food item with a scientifically documented aphrodisiac effect except alcohol and maaaybe chocolate). Also, affluence requires signs to display it, and these restaurants oblige the rising class of conspicuous consumers. I had heard about how demands for exotic foods endanger many a species and habitat, but to see it happening so casually on every street corner was sobering.

Meanwhile, our mission to gleefully blaze through as many species of flora and fauna possible continued unabated. We had a dark green, broccoli-esque vegetable we couldn’t finish because it was too bitter, which we later found was “bitter gourd” (surprise!).The cold sliced donkey tasted pretty much like roast beef, the fried soft-shell crab was too greasy, the giant black snails were passable, thousand-year egg was harmless, the fried honeybees tasted pretty much like the scorpion, and the rats of the sky (i.e. fried pigeon) we did not dare try. Rounding out the list is garlic shoots (yum), dragonfruit (double yum), bai jiu liquor (vile), turtle ‘edge’ (flavorless cartilage), rice-stuffed lotus root (excellent), and smoked bamboo. And of course, fried ‘crap’. Not just crap, but catty crap. One restaurant had it on the menu, and how could we resist? Said crap was brought to our table for inspection, alive and flopping in a bucket, before meeting its shuizhuyu fate. Now that’s freshness.

We\'d like that fried, please

Two culinary experiences are de rigueur in Beijing: hotpot and roast duck. For the latter, our good man Wei took us to King Duck, one of the best duck spots in town. Here, they elevated the serving of roast duck to an art form: the white-clad chef brought a whole duck to our table and proceeded to precision-carve the large pieces of meat, then to slice up the chunks in a sushi-intricate way and lay them on a platter.They give you thin pancakes, scallions and sweet hoisin sauce so you can make a Peking duck burrito with the whole thing and scarf it down. The skin is the most prized part of the duck, so don’t even think about removing it, you health nuts.

At a hotpot restaurant, you order a vat of base broth — we encountered mild, spicy, and tomato-infused — and then dunk various meats and veggies into it once it starts boiling on the gas burner at your table. The meat slices take mere seconds to cook, so you just dunk-and-nosh. It’s great fun and very tasty, and the resulting combo broth at the end, containing the essence of all the animals and vegetables who took a boiling swim in it, is quite flavorful.

For your reference in case you’re headed to Beijing, some of the good places we ate at:

— Feiteng Yuxiang Sichuan Restaurant, on Chunxiu Lu just south of Dongzhimenwai Dajie; super authentic with VIP booths and yards of beer, Chaoyang District

— South Beauty (also Sichuan food), 2nd floor of west wing of China World Trade Center, Chaoyang District

— Three Guizhou Men, Chaoyang District (order the braised pork)

These places are totally posh, and still no meal will ever cost more than $25.Unless you choose to drink yourself to oblivion, in which case it’ll cost $30 plus hangover tax the next day.

Aoyun hui! — or, oh yeah hey, that whole Olympics thing

The Olympics were the original pretext for getting us out to China, and I can say with certainty that they did actually happen. End of story.

Beijing the city

Beijing (bei, north, jing, capital) is an impressive city. Seat of the Chinese empire for over 2000 years, it’s worth a visit any time of year. And it’s simply vast –over 16,000 square kilometers. Tourist venues abound, and despite its size, quaint attractions can be found nestled in various corners … umm, what’s that? You want to hear about the Olympics? I can’t just say “well, you saw it on TV already” and leave it at that? Awright, fine, I was just pulling your leg. Quaint and nestled in the same sentence should have tipped you off.

From your man on the ground

So let me tell you all about aoyun hui (roughly, ‘awe yoon hway’, Olympics). My primary impression of the organizers was that they were trying to seem welcoming while remaining paranoid at the same time. You already got a feeling of that with the news reports of all the unsubstantiated terrorist threats, and the government reaction to the protests along the path of the torch relay. As you may imagine, being nasty and nice at the same time is a tough act.

This attitude was in direct contrast to the overwhelmingly welcoming (yet still circumspect) attitude of the Greeks four years ago. Whereas in Athens, there were central places to congregate, meet fans from other countries, swap stories and tickets and bump into athletes, there was no such thing in Beijing. The so-called Olympic Green — a vast, barren, concrete-and-asphalt complex containing most of the sports venues as well as the Athlete’s Village — seemed deliberately designed to discourage congregation of people for fun. Aside from a few outdoor TV screens showing Team China, there wasn’t anywhere to hang out. And you could only get into the whole complex if you had a ticket for an event happening that selfsame day. This was unfortunate, because a lot of fans felt exiled from the games they traveled thousands of miles to see.

Carrying the torch

But security had to come first. Before entering a venue, you were thoroughly frisked by a smiley-faced, white-gloved volunteer.And even if you had a credentialed pass to get into, say, the tennis venue, and you happened to be one of the co-organizers of the event (such as the American lady we had dinner with one night), there was still was a chance you couldn’t get in. There were these green-clad soldier-dudes all over the place, looking stern, solemn and not a day over 17. Presumably, they were there to make me feel safe –that’s nice. But I did have a vision of them springing into action to take down that lone hippie who’d yell “Free Tibet!” or “Go Falun Gong!” Ah, the joys of totalitarian states.

To say the Chinese went above and beyond the call of duty to stage these Games would be an understatement. They went all out. The $40-45 billion budget for these Olympics dwarfs the piddling $13 billion spent on Athens (which nearly bankrupted Greece). The beautiful, gleaming, hypermodern venues; the beautiful, gleaming, hypermodern subway; the fleet of gleaming, beautiful black Audi A6’s dedicated to shuttling around athletes and officials; the explosion of more fireworks than all the previous 28 Olympiads combined; and an opening ceremony so over-the-top as to defy description — no expense was spared.

And yet, as a visitor, I felt strangely cold. There is a difference between being officially welcoming by playing the Beijing Welcomes You song incessantly over the radio, and actually making people feel welcome. And the Beijing metropolis, with all the poor people and beggars expelled to the provinces, factories shut down, half the cars banned and rain controlled by rockets, felt like the World’s Largest Potemkin Village. Whom they thought they were fooling is anyone’s guess. Countless jumbo blue walls all over the city carried the Beijing 2008 motto, “One world, One dream” in umpteen languages. But you couldn’t help but wonder whether Tibetans, human rights activists, or even you, casual Western tourist with ideas of your own that just may be at odds with those of the Chinese government, were part of this One World.

To be fair, yes, there were volunteers, and I can believe the official count of 100,000. They were on practically every Beijing street corner, sitting on a tiny stool and wearing the trademark red volunteer armband. Except that hardly any of them spoke English. Or could provide useful information about the neighborhood, even when asked in (admittedly choppy) Chinese. The smiley blue-and-white shirted official volunteers in venue booths did speak English and were more helpful. But in 30+ of such booths visited, not a single one could produce a schedule of the events. No schedule! Anywhere! Just guess where things are happening when, head out, and good luck with tickets (NB: full schedules were available online, just no printed ones to carry).

Few tickets, many fans

Speaking of tickets, they were scarce.The journalists with the credentials and the stacks of tickets handed to them beforehand can’t tell you that, but this here Man on the Ground can. Granted, we could have put more effort into ticket acquisition, and ultimately did find some enterprising young folks who had them at reasonable rates.But there was no official route for ticket acquisition, since all 6 quidzillion tickets had technically sold out before the Games ever started.

This was baffling in light of seeing most venues 40-70% empty once you were inside. We did go to a couple of scalper’s markets right outside the venues to see if we could score, and we did. However, the mostly Chinese scalpers were asking for exorbitant prices — sometimes marked up 300 times the ticket price. My guess is that they were hoping that the silly rich Westerners would be so eager to see the events that they would cough up any amount of money.One scalper memorably demanded $147 (1000 RMB) for a $5 handball ticket at 2.30pm — when the game had already started at 2!

Now if you were a rabid enough fan, cough up you did. Gymnastics and swimming were going for legendary prices, and a friend felt lucky to score gymnastics tix for $200 each. Again, the normal fans without connections or unlimited cash — the backpackers, the youngsters, the oldsters, the families without last names like Gates, Buffett, or Walton — were left high and dry, such as the mother outside the Green holding up a sign saying she needed a swimming ticket to see her daughter compete.

In the end, we did see some events, and it’s always fun to see how the fans from the various countries behave. Most had learned how to cheer in Chinese — Idali jiayou! (“Go Italy!”). And so did we, letting out hearty war-whoops of Meiguo jiayou! when American boxer Raynell Williams took to the canvas. Of course, the fastest way to get a hearty chuckle out of a Beijinger was to wave your little Chinese flag and say Zhongguo jiayou! (jung-guo ja-yo) and let them marvel at the spectacle of a white dude attempting Mandarin. Giving directions to the Mongolians from Ulaan Baataar was a highlight, as was meeting the Thai boxing fans dressed in full traditional regalia. (picture)

Thailand jiayou! (with my good man Dwayne)

Heineken Holland House was another highlight, home base for the Dutch fans and a well-oiled nightly party machine. Ah, how I missed it from Athens — so glad to see you guys again! The solidarity, unbridled delight and raucousness of the Dutch fans and their nightly celebration of their successful Olympians was a joy to behold and something the Americans could well emulate at future games (ya hear, Budweiser?). Particularly refreshing were the impromptu regular appearances of Jan Peter Balkenende, Prime Minister of Holland, chatting with the fans, fielding questions and having pictures taken with him, with no intermediaries, handlers, bodyguards or velvet rope in sight.

Jan Peter Balkenende in the H-House

Unfortunately, these parties were shut down at 2am by Chinese edict (although, mysteriously enough, the ones next door at Club Bud went till 5am). Officially, no bar was allowed to serve alcohol within a 2km radius of a venue, and all revelry was to stop by 2. Luckily, this is not what actually came to pass, and most late-night venues continued to be late-night venues. Still, when you go to a country you just know if they’re party people. Greeks are party people — heck, they probably invented the party. Italians are party people. Iranians are party people. The Spanish, Irish and Dutch are definitely party people. On the other hand, Americans are not party people (how many cities in the US can you stay out in past 2am?). Too damn hardworking for their own good. The Chinese are party people — it’s just that Communist is the wrong kind of party.

There’s gold in them thar random sports

During our time in the apartment, we caught some of the Olympic action on one of the 14 state TV channels (which are actually pretty good). Just like in the US, the action was focused on the homeboys and homegirls — Chinese athletes kicking several metric tons of ass in weightlifting, boxing, judo, gymnastics, shooting, archery, rowing, and fencing. Waitasec, let me re-read that part — Shooting? Archery? Rowing? Fencing? Yes, the highfalutin Euro sports put in there just the way Baron Pierre de Coubertin wanted them became the medal fields for the host country to reap.

The cognitive dissonance resolves itself once you realize that this is the end result of the policy of juguo, or ‘whole nation’. Starting in 1979, the government would screen young hopefuls, and if they fit the biometric parameters, would employ them as athletes, completely controlling their careers. (Amusing sidenote: Olympic light-flyweight gold medal boxer Zhou Shiming was initially disqualified by this process because his reach wan’t long enough, but they snuck him past the inspectors somehow.)

To this casual observer, the state-funded factory farming of medals seems strangely at odds with the Olympic spirit and a pretty honest display of some inferiority complex the government seems to have. And somehow a bunch of metal discs strung on a ribbon are going to make up for that? Even in China, on the website of the state-run news agency Xinhua, this appropriation of massive resources to the cause of jingoism has been called “profligate” and “extremely unfair.” So, organizer dudes — are the Olympics a platform for promoting international friendship, or a stage for displaying China’s nascent supremacy? You sure got us confused. In the meantime — zhongguo jiayou!

Then again, perhaps it makes sense not to take the Olympics too seriously. Founded by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the modern Olympics started as a plaything of the European aristocracy and continues to be so to this day, giving otherwise unemployed people like Prince Albert of Monaco something to do. Political displays are no stranger to the Games (Berlin 1936, Munich 1972, Moscow 1980, Los Angeles 1984). And what was most on display in Beijing was money, money, money: Lenovo, Audi, China Telecom, McDonald’s, Coke. The fact that the last two companies are in the business of making people fat and unhealthy with tasty poison is apparently irrelevant to the world’s biggest sporting event.

So, as long as you take the Olympics for exactly what it is — big money supporting a big sporting event with its attendant corruption and scandal, and the host country given a chance to showboat — you can enjoy it plenty. Start harkening back to some true spirit of the Games, which arguably never existed, and it becomes less fun. Buddy, this is the true spirit of the Games.

Death Race 2008, or a Beijing cab ride

Cab rides in every city offer singular insight into the local culture. First off, you need to know that Beijing cabs are dirt cheap. The initial charge is 10 yuan ($1.47), which is sufficient for most short hops. 20 yuan means you traveled far, and almost no cab ride will exceed 30 yuan.

I had heard alarming things about driving in China, but was pleasantly surprised to find that, aside from some stylistic differences, it wasn’t so bad in Beijing (more reason to worry in the provinces, apparently). The miracle was that you had cyclists, pedestrians and cars all sharing the streets at their own pace, weaving into each other while seemingly oblivious to one another, with nary an accident to be seen. The first dozen times that our cab driver would drive enthusiastically into a thicket of street-crossing pedestrians, I gasped in horror, thinking surely blood will be on our hands. On right-hand turns, cabbies had no compunctions about ramming straight through the one-foot gap between walking couples — so not Santa Monica (but very New York). They also had no problem nearly broadsiding each other on left turns. No right of way here; just get your way. In spite of it all, the accidents we dreaded never happened, and we lived to tell.

Sightseeing and, um, culture

Let the record show that Sir Randall and I started this trip with sterling intentions. We invested time and money in learning Chinese beforehand. We agreed to sample the cuisine liberally and without prejudice, gastric turmoil be damned. We resolved to meet the natives, to attempt earnestly to communicate in their tongue, and to get a true feel for the Middle Kingdom.

Let the record also show that somewhere along the line, this noble resolve started to fray. And then gradually erode. And then come tumbling down in a vast landslide of crude jokes, shameless ethnocentrism, body noises and good ol’ American ignorance. Who knew that beneath the well-meaning façade of a brace of well-educated would-be cultural attachés lurked Beavis and Butthead, quietly awaiting their turn in the sun to crack a fart joke. Preferably in a temple.

This first trip to East Asia made me just realize just how much I was a product of my culture. As an Iranian, I’m still steeped in Indo-European heritage shared from the banks of the Ganges all the way to California. As an American and Westerner, I’m heir to the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions. None of this has a toehold in China, leaving me without a frame of reference. And this is after studying Chinese philosophy for over a decade.

The writing is all squiggles I couldn’t make out or somehow fudge. A strange homogeneity seemed to reign over the populace, above and beyond the influence of Communism. As the saying goes, “The bird that sticks its head out of the bushes gets shot.” Saving face seemed to take precedence over rationality. I was delighted, baffled, delighted again, confused, then just accepting — yurp, this here place sure’s different. Still, it was the first time that I couldn’t wait to get back home from a trip. Sometimes you just need things to make sense around you again.

And so the sightseeing was different. When I went to see the Parthenon, it was a religious experience. After studying it for so long, being on a first-name basis with Kallikrates and Phidias and knocking back ouzo with them, here it was, a monument to beauty, time, and the human mind. Were the palaces in the Forbidden City any less? Was the Summer Palace complex not an order of magnitude more majestic than Versailles? But this here yankee wasn’t equipped to get it yet. So I tacitly acknowledge the greatness of all that we saw, knowing that as my Chinese improves and with it, my understanding of this rich culture, I may get it someday.

In the meantime, the Forbidden City is awe-inspiring. And the city-sized (no joke) Summer Palace probably impressed and intimidated any visiting dignitary with its gleefully brazen display of imperial wealth and power. The Lama Temple had a giant 55ft (18m) Maitreya Buddha carved out of a single piece of sandalwood — very cool. The Temple of Heaven, where emperors made offerings to ensure a good harvest, was beautifully serene, and the Great Wall was one impressive beast. I finally understood what they meant by “I climbed the Great Wall” — in places, the Wall goes up at a 45 degree angle, and you almost have to rappel down.

It was a Wall, and it was indeed Great

Engrish Anguish

With the darn buildings out of the way, let’s get to the interesting stuff — namely, signs in mangled English, or Engrish, as we hereby dub the new language (e.g. ‘crap’ as in the menu above). The Engrish ranged from the discrepant (funny), misguided (very funny), absurd (hilarious) to nonsensical (no longer funny — see section on Bob Mankoff in New Yorker Conference article below). Right here are some of the choice morsels from the hundreds of candidates that we saw. No Roman characters in China would escape the dread clutches of Engrish.

Coffee cop Engrish

Well. That cleared up everything.

But perilous hills are the best kind!

Of course, we retaliated for the Engrish by savaging the Chinese language whenever we attempted to use it. One of the reasons why Chinese is such a challenge to a Westerner is because of tones. Here’s the story: each Chinese syllable, represented by a character, is made up of an initial consonant and a final vowel — an initial and a final for short. So usually you don’t have a consonant at the end of a syllable (with the exception of nasalized -n or -ng, as in chang). Ma is allowed; mad is not. You figure there are 20-30 each of initial and final sounds, giving you a repertoire of 800 possible words. This clearly isn’t enough to encode all the stuff in the world you’d want to describe via language, so you create diversity by adding a melodic element, or tone. With 5 tones (flat, up, down-up, down and short-neutral), you have now increased the repertoire of syllables to 4000 or so. Combine syllables in pairs, and now you can generate enough symbolic diversity to code for all the stuff in your environment without too much overlap.

Don\'t a softie -- keep \'em lofty

But overlap still happens, and because of the limited coding potential of the initial-final system, there’s a lot more overlap than alphabetic languages, which have essentially infinite coding capacity. And yet, English has tons of overlap, too, and most of us can figure out from context whether we want to play a set of tennis, we’re all set for the evening, we need a set of silverware or we just set a broken bone.

The problem is that the Western ear uses tones to encode for other things like mood and mode. Am I feeling lighthearted? Am I asking a question? My tones go up and down accordingly. And if I was talking at a Chinese friend’s family dinner, I may have just told him that his horse (ma, 3rd tone, down-up) is an excellent cook instead of his mother (ma, 1st tone, flat). Which I’m sure I did countless times on this trip.

The picture below illlustrates the point: four (si) sounds like death (also si, but different tone). In Hong Kong, they’re way superstitious about such things, so there is no 4th, 14th or 24th floor.  Most Beijing buildings have a 4th floor, but ours was built by a Hong Kong company — hence the omissions.

What are they missing for? Oh crap, I said it again...

And then there are the characters. There is no alphabet; each character is unique. The average Chinese person knows about 4000 of them. There is a bit of a phonetic and logical element to each character, which I’m not going to get into here, but the only real way to be able to pronounce a character is to know it beforehand. If you haven’t seen it before, you’re basically screwed. Then there’s the simplified character set, in use in mainland China, and the more complex traditional character set, in use in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. And then there’s the cursive handwritten script, which looks significantly different from its printed counterpart.

All in all, this is a lot of information and complexity to handle. Apparently it takes a schoolkid a good 5 years to master all these elements. I am in awe any time someone can speak, read and write this language with effortless ease. I’ll be able to do it better someday, but for now, it all seems miraculous.

Transliteration frustration

One thing that I did not understand before starting my Chinese lessons was this: why does the transliteration of Chinese words into English sound different than the way they look?  Why is ‘Wang’ really ‘Wong’, and ‘Mao Zedong’ really ‘Mao Tsedong’? Presumably, you turned it into English so you could actually read it. Why not write it the way you want it pronounced?

Turns out that this is because what we’re looking at is basically a transliteration (or romanization) system, namely pinyin.  And the letters, which look like our own, may as well be Cyrillic or Arabic, because there is no one-to-one correspondence between pinyin letters and English sounds. The pinyin C, for example, is tsCao is pronounced tsaoZ is like dz.  And there’s no a priori way for you to know that.  The very common surname Wang is pronounced more like wong, which is why you see both spellings Stateside.

All cheekiness aside, this was one of my most enlightening trips. China has an ancient, venerable, deep, and challenging culture, well worth studying and understanding. People, countless numbers of people, waves of people, mountains of people, so many people that the entire population of the US is a rounding error in the number of Chinese people (0.3 billion vs 1.3 billion), all of them living, loving, eating, working and somehow getting by, is a wonder to behold. And should even a fraction of them succeed in their seeming quest to become more like meat-eating, fuel-burning, all-consuming Americans, boy is Planet Earth in trouble. In any case, I encourage all of my readers to learn Chinese. It’s fun and useful to speak the language of your future bosses.

1 thought on “Beijing 2008: Cultural, Culinary and Linguistic (Mis)Adventures

  1. The restaurant prices are shocking – $100 to $500!? I assume most locals do not eat out.

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