Friday, October 31, 2014

Are you a Chinese redneck?

Thanks to WeChat (China's hottest social media) and a fairly decent grasp of written Chinese, my eyes have been opened to a whole new world of insights. I can't help but want to share some of them because they really shed light on Chinese pop culture.

I recently wrote a post about Chinese beauty standards. In that post, I explained the different tiers of women based on weight and one of the Chinese words within the original post that I struggled to translate was diǎosī (屌丝). There are some similar terms in English used to describe a certain subset of the underclass such as redneck (in the US), chav (UK), and bogan (Oz), but none of these words exactly capture the essence of what a diǎosī exactly is. I tried asking Ming, but being the old man that he is, he didn't even understand what it meant in Chinese, let alone how to translate it into English. I guess I should cut him some slack because it took me a while to figure out what twerking and catfish meant. Once out of high school, slang is a tricky thing to keep up with.

Diǎosī is a fairly new word in the Chinese lexicon and keeps popping up all over the internet. Today I was finally able to get a better grasp on the word, thanks to a friend's post on WeChat. I realized that Ming and I are both very much diǎosī, Chinese rednecks, by the standards outlined in said post. Check out if you match any of the criteria (translated into English below):

Illustration of two diaosi. photo via weixin

For men:
1. Your entire wardrobe costs less than 1000 RMB (US$150).
2. You only drink baijiu (Chinese liquor made from sorgum) or beer.
3. You wear clothes from 361 degrees or Jeanswest (Chinese brands a step below their foreign equivalents of Adidas or The Gap).
4. You had less than three girlfriends before getting married.
5. You drink Kangshifu (ordinary Chinese brand) green tea.
6. Your annual bonus is less than 10,000 RMB (US$1500).
7. Your cigarettes cost less than 20 RMB (US$3.50) a pack.
8. Your car cost less than 100,000 RMB (US$15,000).
9. You haven't taken a real vacation in several years.
10. Your shoes cost less than 800 RMB (US$130).

For women:
1. You haven't changed your hairstyle in the last 6 months.
2. You have a resting bitch face (don't dare give a sexy pout).
3. You've never bought a bikini.
4. You don't wear sparkly nail polish.
5. You don't wear matching panty sets.
6. You've been struggling to diet for the past five months.
7. You like to walk behind your man(?).
8. You don't like looking in the mirror.
9. You don't wear shoes with more than a 5 cm (2 inch) heel.

According to this list, many people I know, both foreign and Chinese, are diǎosī. It seems to encapsulate your run-of-the-mill middle class adult. I do find it interesting that men's standards focus on finance and women's more on appearance. However, I don't find being a diǎosī anything to be ashamed of. I guess I could make more effort to be more of a girly girl and have my under garments match, but now that I'm in my 30's my sparkling nail polish days are over.

The good news, even if you are a Chinese redneck, you probably aren't an American one. The checklist for that is much harder for the average person to accomplish (and to understand, for that matter).

Are you a diǎosī (Chinese redneck)? Do you have a similar term where you are from? Do you find this kind of thing offensive or funny?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Preparing for a long winter

Leeks drying outside (with trash collectors in background)

My favorite season is here, but soon it will give way to Chengde's sub-zero winter. Having grown up in a place with long, cold winters, I actually don't mind winter here that much. My hometown is, in fact, the second coldest major US city, beaten out only by Minneapolis. As anyone from a cold climate can attest, before winter, it is important to prepare. First prepare your state of mind. Seasonal depression is for real. Next, get out your snowblowers, salt, plows, tire chains, boots, ice auger, and snow shovels—you're gonna need them. Most importantly, be sure to have some money put aside for your heating bill. Keeping warm is not cheap.

more leeks

As opposed to the US where heating is paid monthly by usage, in China the price is calculated by the square meter and it's paid for upfront. We just paid ours last week. Our 63 square meter apartment (680 square feet) cost 1500 RMB (about US$250) to heat for the winter, half of which we'll be reimbursed for by Ming's work. Unfortunately, we have no control over when the heat will be turned on, though it is usually the first week of November. We also don't get to dictate the temperature. While I am now anxiously anticipating the arrival of indoor heat, I don't dare complain too much, as the situation in southern China—any place south of the Yangtze River—is far worse. People don't have indoor heating. Southerners have to get by with space heaters, air-conditioners (they have a heating function, who knew this was possible?), and many layers of clothes.

drying cabbage

In addition to paying the annual heating bill, I've noticed people doing other things to prepare for winter. These days, everyone seems to be heading to the grocer's to stock up on leeks and cabbage. I am afraid to visit the supermarket lately because the entire vegetable section is overrun by elderly women filling their carts with bundles of leeks. Every direction I look there are people drying out vegetables for the winter. Ming and I have never bothered to do this. I wonder if anyone under the age of 50 even bothers. I understand the desire to save some money, as the price of veggies obviously peaks during winter months, but I'm not sure if the cost soars high enough to warrant this kind of hoarding.

I just thought this was cute.
Another sure indicator that cold weather is setting in is long underwear (thermals). Despite being from a cold weather climate, I never owned a pair of long underwear before coming to China. My understanding was that long underwear is the sort of thing for ice fisherman and snowmobilers, people who are winter sports enthusiasts. In this part of China, thermals are the very foundation of a person's wardrobe from September to May. If you aren't wearing them, prepare for a verbal thrashing. Only an idiot would be caught without this essential layer of warmth. I am a convert; I wear them all the time now, both indoors and out.

What about you? Do you do anything to prepare for winters? Or are you lucky enough to live in a place without winter?

Monday, October 20, 2014

A not-so-fun run

2014 Beijing Marathon, photo via weixin

Yesterday was the annual Beijing Marathon. As anyone in this corner of China can attest, the air pollution has been stifling the past couple days. I'm hesitant to open my windows or go out, so braving a 26-mile run sounds downright ludicrous. I don't know how people's lungs can cope, though people certainly try. The pictures of participants show a large array of face masks (some resembling gas masks) were used to combat the hazardous air. Check out some interesting photos on this Chinese article. 

In the sprit of the Bei Ma (as it's called in Chinese), I thought I'd write a little about my own experience running in China. Me? Run? I know it comes as a shock. Given my body type (chubby hamster), it may come as a surprise to some that I enjoy running. I've gone through spurts of running and jogging since joining my middle school cross country team in 7th grade.

Although I don't have a bucket list (they seem to be all the rage these days), if I did, running a half marathon would be on it. A few years ago I began a training regiment in anticipation of attempting a half in the Beijing Marathon. Being pathetically out of shape, I was giving myself eight months to prepare, with a couple races leading up to it. The first being the Zheng-Kai Marathon in March.

The concept of the Zheng-Kai Marathon is pretty cool if you are up for running a full marathon; it starts in Henan's capital of Zhengzhou and you cross the finish line somewhere in the historic city of Kaifeng. But that was well beyond my ability. Having only been jogging for several weeks leading up to the race, I settled for running in a 5k (about 3 miles) in Zhengzhou. In addition to the 5k and marathon, there was also the option for 10k or half marathon, but I figured to take it easy in my first race. I signed up for the race and paid the fee online (45 RMB, a steal compared to high profile races like The Great Wall or Beijing Marathon that can cost well over US$100).

I picked up my pack the day before the race with instructions to check-in for the race two hours prior to the start time. When I arrived the next morning, I was amazed at the number of people waiting to participate. I later found it was approximately 10,000 in the 5k alone. To my dismay, we didn't actually have to check-in for anything. I only had to find a place to put my pack and then pin my number to my shirt. After getting situated, I spent the next hour and a half chatting with a race volunteer (of which there were many) and then chatting to a group of local teens who were participating in the race.

At last the time came and we began to assemble by the start line. Due to the large number of runners, I was nowhere near the start line. In fact, after the gun sounded, it took me 10 minutes just to reach it! The biggest problem may not have been the number of people, however; it was probably the sheer lack of organization. Many of the participants were walking the race, but they were mixed amongst runners. It was incredibly difficult to get passed them in the beginning of the race. A lot of the walkers and some of the runners carried large banners, sometimes held by multiple people. I also saw men carrying their girlfriends and adults carrying toddlers. I guess no one cared that children under age eight were restricted from joining the race. Rules are meant to be broken, right? And broken they were. Despite the volunteers manning the race course, people found shortcuts in the course, taking them at liberty. Garbage was strewn everywhere, including hundreds of yogurt containers (yogurt, why yogurt?) that must have been passed out to the runners who leaded the race. I only managed to see one kilometer marker (for kilometer 2) on the course. As I neared the finish line, I wanted to break into a sprint, but couldn't—there were too many walkers ahead of me. When I finally finished the race, over 50 minutes since it began, I was tired and incredibly frustrated.

My first real race was a letdown. I wondered if subsequent races in China would be as chaotic. Unfortunately, I've yet to find out. Shortly after the Zheng-Kai Marathon I came down with the flu and then the heat of summer hit and I never got back into a proper running routine. I still hope that one day I'll properly train for and achieve a half marathon, but I don't think it's going to happen in China. Looking back at my 5k experience and pictures of yesterday's marathon, I guess it might be for the best. I might have better luck when we return to the States.

 not your ordinary face mask, photo via weixin

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

No Perfect Goddess

I've never been thin; in fact, I am overweight and have been since childhood. It's a painful admission as I feel like it is a character flaw. Though I don't eat poorly and I walk daily, I should be eating better (no more chocolate, no more chocolate, no more chocolate) and exercising more (specifically: sit-ups and whatever gets rid of flabby underarms).

In America, we like to dance around the topic of being overweight. Don't call people fat—they are heavy. Curvacious. Bootilicious. Big Boned. Whatever. No one likes to be fat; it means you are lazy and gluttonous and worst of all, ugly. In China, it seems to mean something different, though I'm still trying to understand what. People use the word fat so freely here that it doesn't seem to carry the same weight of an insult as in my homeland. I've wrote about this a bit before. But whatever the intended meaning—good, bad, or neutral—the word stings when I hear it, though I hear it less and less lately.

Being overweight, being fat, is the new normal in eastern China. Still, women strive to svelte. Dieting is popular, though it takes a different form than what I'm used to. There are weight loss coffees and teas, but other common techniques include cutting out all meats and skipping meals. No Atkins, no South Beach, no Paleo. I don't know if any of this is very effective. I've always found exercising and restricting oils and sugars to be most helpful, call me old-fashioned. Unfortunately, even during my most disciplined dieting days, I never was able to achieve what you'd call skinny.

Yesterday I came across a very helpful chart posted by a Chinese friend on WeChat (for those who don't know, WeChat is the current Chinese social media of choice that is like facebook, twitter, and skype wrapped up into one). Anyways, here's the chart:

Vertically, you find your height in centimeters. For example, I'm 5'4'' which equals about 163 cm, we'll round down to 162. The numbers within the chart are all in Chinese jin (which equals half a kilo or 1.1 pounds). Horizontally, at the top, you will see three different categories, under which is a figure of weight in jin. The category on the left represents a “Perfect Goddess Figure.” In the middle, you have something loosely translated as “Ordinary Pudge” (correct me, fellow Mandarin readers, if you can come up with a better translation) and to the right is a full out “Chubster” which is sometimes illustrated by images such as the chubby hamster below:

I am well, well into the Chubster category. In fact, according to this chart I need to weigh about 100 pounds to consider myself a true goddess. I haven't been a goddess since the 4th grade then and I fear I will never make it down to 100 or even close. Maybe I should feel bad about this, but I don't. Not really. I know a lot of Chinese people believe that a woman should never top 100 pounds, but I can't imagine myself, or most of my western female friends, being that thin. I rather not get too hung up on the numbers. At this point, I would rather be healthy and happy than a teeny, tiny goddess.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Six Months (and more lessons learned)

At Giraffe Cafe with William

We've made it to six months! In the beginning, it felt like William would never grow up. I struggled a lot with the newborn stage, but now I can hardly remember those days. Time really passes quickly and it's remarkable how fast babies change. I'm trying to enjoy what's left of the baby stage; before long, William will be a toddler. These days, he is busy learning to roll around and sit up. He's experimenting with lots of different noises, primarily mama, baba, dada—which means he's already well on his way to being bilingual!

I've learned a lot in the past several months. I've learned about the intricacies of my relationship with China, with my husband, and with my mother-in-law. I understand things now that I never fully grasped in all my nine years of living here. I see my own Americanness and perhaps the stubbornness that goes with it. I am working hard on accepting that there is more than one right way to do things. I am also realizes that what works in America doesn't always work in China.

I had a bit of a revelation last week. After months of feeling picked on. After months of feeling like Ming and his mom were watching my every move. After months of assuming I could do nothing right. I finally got it. I have to stop viewing it as My American Way vs. Their Chinese Way. We all have different ways of doing things and personal preferences. It's not about being right or wrong. It seems like the most obvious thing in the world, but I was so wrapped up in being on the defense that I failed to see the situation clearly.

I'd like to go into details about all the silly bickering and beliefs that brought about my change of heart. But I think this time I'd better just let it go. Before long we will be back in the US and the tables will turn. I will be in my comfort zone and surrounded by people who share in most of my daily habits and reinforce many of my cultural beliefs. I need to remember what it's like to be the outsider. Compromise and compassion are really important, in any family, but especially in a cross cultural one.

Monday, October 06, 2014

A New Addition to the Family

Mama and William with the new baby.

William has a little sister! Ming's cousin's wife, Meng Meng, gave birth to a little girl on October 1st, which, coincidently, was the Chinese National Day. Several babies were born at the hospital that day (the same one where I gave birth), which is more than the usual one or two a day they average, indicting that some mother's chose the first of October as a lucky day for their cesarean birth. Meng Meng gave birth naturally, 22 days early, to a healthy daughter weighing in at just under 6 pounds.

While the little one, who is yet to be named, is technically William and Ping's second cousin, they both will refer to her as mèimei (little sister). William has already been dethroned as the youngest and has now earned the title of the baby's gēge (elder brother) while Ping, as the oldest of her generation, continues as jiějie (elder sister).

Learning all the Chinese names for familial relations is complicated. In fact, in Mandarin, there are eight words (or more?) for cousin depending on if said cousin is male or female, elder or younger, paternal or maternal. Perhaps knowing the word for cousin doesn't really matter, however, since many cousins are considered brothers and sisters. When I first came to China I found this very confusing. All my students would tell me about their numerous “brothers” and “sisters;” I didn't understand how so many people could have siblings in a country with a one child policy. Turns out, most of them were talking about their cousins.

looks like they like each other

At first, I didn't know what to call Ming's cousins, but since I'm married to the eldest male cousin, I simply call them by name. They, on the other hand, respectfully call me sister-in-law (sǎozi). All of Ming's relations are on his mom's side. We refer to his mom's older brother as big uncle (dàjiù) and his wife is big uncle mother (dàjiùmā). We call her younger brother second uncle (èrjiù) and his wife is. . . you guessed it. . . second uncle mother (èrjiùmā). There are several words for aunt in Mandarin, but Ming's aunt goes by lǎo yí (which, literally translated, means “old maternal aunt”). There would be completely different terms for his aunts and uncles if Ming had paternal relatives.

Is your head spinning yet? Well, don't worry. Here is a good post about common vocabulary for Chinese family with a "Chinese family tree" link to download. When in doubt, it's probably best to check what to call people. There are a lot of variations.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

My mother-in-law

I feel very fortunate. If there was an award for best stepmother, I would nominate mine. But it doesn't end there, if there was such an award for mothers-in-law, I would throw her name in, too. How many people can say that?

A person's relationship with her mother is tricky, with one's stepmother (if she has one) is even trickier, and the relationship with her mother-in-law, well, that's often stuff of nightmares. From what I've heard, Chinese mothers-in-law are a particularly thorny breed, as traditionally they reigned above the household. I've read some interesting blogs posts about Western women and their m-i-ls, my favorite includes Jocelyn's post on her blog Speaking of China; the comment section in particular elicited a spectrum of emotions in me—from anger to fear to sadness, but mostly just gratitude that I haven't had to deal with the in-law headaches most women speak of.

Why is my mother-in-law so great? Clearly, we have our differences; I've written about a few (such as an old, snarky post on spitting on the floor at TGIFridays and more recently, only allowing warm food and beverage while breastfeeding). At the heart of things, she is very open-minded and has always accepted me. It's not easy to accept that your child is marrying a foreigner, my own parents had their own concerns about this in the beginning. With the occasional exception, she doesn't lecture me for not doing things The Chinese Way. She also does the chores that Ming and I hate and mostly refuse to do, such as cleaning the stove. For that alone, I'd like to nominate her for sainthood.

I think part of the reason Ming's mom is such an easygoing mother-in-law is because she never had a m-i-l of her own lording over her. Historically, there seems to be a cycle of abuse, passed down from one generation of Chinese women to the next. Since each woman had to endure the torment of her husband's mother, she eventually feels the need to even the score by mistreating her son's wife. Ming's paternal grandparents died around the time of the Communist takeover of China, leaving his dad an orphan. Ming's mom never met any of her in-laws and Ming has never had contact with anyone from his Dad's side of the family, which come from far off Sichuan Province. Because of this, for better or worse, Ming's mom has never belonged to any family but her own.

But being without in-laws isn't the real reason for her greatness. My m-i-l has a great personality. This is clear through her myriad friends and her ability to always find a boyfriend despite the disproportionate amount of elderly women to men. Since having William, we've had the chance to spend an awful lot of time together. It's been a great chance to bond over the baby and get to know her more intimately.

Spending so much time together also provides a glimpse of what the future may look like for us--for her help and kindness are not a one way street. One day, when she is too old or too lonely, we will most likely take care of her and live together. This is often part of the deal when one marries into a Chinese family, which is different from most American families I know. I long ago accepted the idea and now have even grown to like it. While merging different generations and personalities together can sometimes be challenging, it's nice to know we can all lean on each other through our difficulties.

How about you? Do you ever imagine taking care of your parents or in-laws when they are old? How do you think you'll get along?

Ming, Ping, and my m-i-l, circa 2010

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Nail Houses

When I was in first grade, one of my classmates, Mike, was changing schools. He had to move due to eminent domain laws. My parents explained to me that Mike's house was on land other people needed. They were going to use that land for constructing several commercial buildings. His family was given money so that they could move somewhere else since their house would soon be demolished. I thought the whole situation sounded terribly unfair. I couldn't imagine having to move from my own home and start a new school because someone else decided they wanted to knock our house down and build something else in its place.

After Mike, I hadn't come across anyone affected by eminent domain. . . and then I came to China. Anyone who has been here knows that you can't go far without stumbling on something being knocked down or something being built up. This out-with-the-old-and-in-with-the-new mentality has caused a new phenomenon—nail houses. If you don't know what nail houses (钉子户dīngzi hù) are, you should check out this article. The pictures will give you an idea! Nail houses are particularly common in China, though they do occur in other countries, even the US, as shown in this article.

Aunt's house, 2007

In China, homeowners may refuse to move despite their property being snatched up by the government or private developers. Some stay because they simply don't want to leave. Most, however, hold out on selling their homes in hopes of scoring a better deal as developers get more desperate for the property their home is on. Sometimes this plan backfires, as has happened to owners in a dilapidated apartment complex near my home. Most of the apartments are empty, but others still have occupants, those nails who initially refused to move, but are now stuck in the crumbling abode since money for the developing project ran out.

door frame and rubble
For others, things work out quite well, as was the case for Ming's relatives. Ming's uncle (his mom's younger brother) and aunt (mom's younger sister) both had houses on property that was being developed. Their homes were simple, one story houses with small courtyards—the kind of homes you typically encounter in the Chinese countryside. Quite frankly, the living conditions were poor, without indoor plumping or adequate heat. They were conveniently located near the city center by Chengde's Summer Mountain Resort. In 2007, before Ming and I went to the US, we visited his aunt's house and found that everything (with the exception of his uncle's home and the public toilet) was rubble. When we returned the next year, they still remained. I don't think they moved until the end of 2008, more than a year after all their neighbors had moved. They made out quite well, scoring two brand new apartments per family, plus cash. In the span of a year they went from dirt poor to having brand new flat screen TVs and big, plush coaches. To this day, I'm not sure how to feel about it—happy that they were lifted out of poverty or, dare I admit, jealous that they got all new stuff.

Have you heard stories or personally know anyone affected by new development? What do you think is the most fair way for the government and developers to deal with this?