Goodbye, Dalian!

It was fun! Off to Beijing, to do what always felt like my real occupation here – learning Chinese.

I’ve got a pile of gifts, a larger vocabulary, and a post-it note with the Chinese idiom for “schadenfreude” on it.

I feel very well-prepared.


Is Learning Chinese Hard?

There are two possible answers to this question, both of which I read all the time.

1) Anyone can do it. All the Chinese people can, so can you.

2) It is incredibly difficult and takes years. Characters + tones make the whole thing an incredible amount of trouble.

Well, both are true. Based on my adult experiences of learning both Spanish and Chinese, I’d agree with David Moser’s assessment that it takes twice as long for a speaker of a Latin-based language (let’s say, English) to learn Chinese as it takes them to learn another Latin-based, alphabetical language (say, French, Spanish or Italian).

So if you’re deciding whether to learn French or Chinese, well, just think about that for a second. You can acquire French twice as fast.

But, if you’re willing to put in those extra years of effort, yes, anyone can learn Chinese. That means you and your friends, and everyone you meet. You could all be speaking Chinese in a few years, if (and that’s a big if) you decided it was worth the effort and were willing to move to China.   

The basics (character writing, hearing/saying tones, pinyin pronounciation) take maybe about three times as long to master – I’d say it took me about two years before I was comfortable with all those things – but once you have those down, the rest is much like any other language – vocabulary, grammar.

And while you’re putting in all that extra time, Chinese has lots of little rewards to keep you interested. You find that the word for “family,”

visually represents a pig under a roof. You find that the word “cow,”

means not only “cow” but “awesome”.  “That’s really cow!” you find yourself saying to your friends.

There’s a lot of little joys in studying Chinese for those who are dedicated, which takes the edge off how damn long it takes you to master.

Aftermath of Dalian’s NIMBY Protests – A Threatening Company Email

On Monday, this vaguely frightening message dropped in my inbox. It was from a guy I know in the Property Department, but the instructions to forward and lack of signature suggest that the message really originated elsewhere. (the big bosses? the Shanghai office?)

It reads:

Dear colleagues,

1. Dalian’s city government has made a public announcement regarding the closure of the PX project, and is working on follow-up plans. So, tomorrow, Saturday August 20th, we ask all the staff not to attend gatherings or rallies in any shape or form.

2. We ask colleagues using various types of public media (microblogging, text messaging, forums etc.) not to use radical, open speech. The government department will carry out inspection and control, and can take measures to deal with this type of thing.

We also ask that the property department disseminate this message before 2 o’clock today. Because we are notifying you on Saturday, we ask the person in charge of each department to notify their staff after receiving this message.  


Original Chinese text below:






Since, as far as I know, there were no plans for a follow-up protest this weekend, this seems like an unnecessary threat. But with this message, it’s made clear that last weekend the public had its shot at public protest; the government doesn’t want any more, thanks very much. 

My deskmate suggested that this warning was about the Dalian government’s image. “If there are further protests, it’ll look bad to the central government – it’ll look like the Dalian government can’t control the city,” she explained.

The other odd thing is the use of my company’s email to get the message out. Did the government contact most of the big companies in Dalian, or is my company just trying to warn/protect its employees?

A Birthday in Dalian

I arrived at my birthday party a little late – taxis can be hard to find on Friday night. However, nearly all my colleagues and coworkers were there. (“I will be there on time,” they had all said to me, which I had suspected was a standard euphemism, but it turns out they had all meant it.)

When I got there, though, a few of my “foreign friends” – Thai, Indian, Malaysian Chinese – were hanging out outside, smoking. Some of them spoke Chinese, some of them didn’t. They quickly acquired a bottle of whisky.

One of my colleagues walked by and I introduced her around. “Out here is the English Corner,” I joked. “How come you don’t speak Chinese?” she asked, smiling – a fair and unfair question.

“How chuuuu!” replied one of my friends. (That’s how he says hao chi, “delicious.”). Grasping the situation, my coworker smiled and strolled away. She does speak English quite well, but maybe she didn’t have the heart for this kind of mangling of Chinese.

Eventually the group made a large circle, and I straddled the invisible line between my two groups of friends. It wasn’t about racial lines because plenty of my “English-speaking” group of friends are ethnically Chinese. It was that half the group was comfortable in English, the other half wasn’t.

My Chinese colleagues, but for a few that are truly fluent in English, often preface interactions by saying, “My English is poor.” This is a face-saving device, but they then can go on a long (and fluent) explanation of why their English is poor.

By this time, you’re often thinking — while you were giving me a perfectly grammatical explanation of why your English is so bad, we could have been having a real conversation! Their embarassment with English makes us both feel more comfortable in Chinese.

I, and my friends who are learning Chinese, have the opposite approach. “I can speak Chinese!” we proclaim, mangling our tones and pronunciation. I tend to have people thinking I’m fluent in the language, until that inevitable moment when I mix up “towel” with “scarf,” or “rice porridge” with “Jay Chou”. That’s when I start my apologetic rant. Sometimes people spare my feelings – sometimes they don’t.

Fortunately, that night, everyone’s happiness, the friendly atmosphere of the bar, a few people’s willingness to move between languages – made the evening an absolutely lovely one. Everyone had a great time, ate cake, sang “Happy Birthday” in two languages…it was a fabulous 23rd.

At one point, my younger colleagues were talking about the boys in attendance. A blond guy I didn’t know showed up, and they thought he was cute. To me he was average-looking but blond hair holds a deep fascination for both my current and former roommates. (Both my ex-roommates expressed a deep desire to meet and marry a Northern European).

“Very cute, but not tall enough,” they judged.

I tried to do one of my male friends a favour. He was sitting next to the blond guy – he’s single, Indian, and very, very handsome. “Hey,” I said to a few of my young colleagues, “that guy is single. Do you think he’s cute?”

“Nah, I don’t like Indians,” they all said. “We like the blond guy.” Happily, they softened after my friend generously bought a round of drinks.

It brought me back to how earlier, at dinner, my friend was telling me, “I just don’t like Chinese guys that much. They’re not very tall or muscular…I just don’t go for that type.” I pointed out that there were plenty of Chinese guys in that very restaurant that were tall and muscular, but it didn’t seem to take.

Happily, that very night she got a little crush on one of my Chinese coworkers, a gregarious guy with a broad Australian accent from his study abroad.

I liked seeing all our mental barriers opening up a notch.

Fresh Dates – A Little Fruit Porn from China

Did I put the word “porn” in the title of this post purely to get more hits? YES. Shameless, I know. But you porn-seekers, take this as fate, have a look at the photos below, and move to China immediately.

Because the fruit is WONDERFUL. Lychees, durian, etc. Great peaches. It helps that my street, and the next street over, and the next one after that, and so on… are all basically farmer’s markets.

And maybe – possibly – I’m guessing uneducatedly here – maybe there hasn’t been the motivation, or technology, to tamper with fruits genetically until they’re cardboard version of themselves?

My favourite fruit discovery has been fresh dates. Observe:

These are dates, when they haven’t been dried and sweetened to death.



They taste almost nothing like dried dates. They have a little bit of that cloying sweetness the dried dates have, but mostly, they taste like Macintosh apples.

But what I, in my laziness, really love about these is that you don’t have to peel them and they’re hard enough not to disintegrate easily. A perfect school snack, these.

Does the Fruit Detective know about fresh dates?

Dalian Government Orders PX Factory Shutdown – Proof that Successful, Peaceful Protests are Possible

As I wrote in my previous post, the air in my office had been filled with news of the protest for the entire week. People around me were nervous about attending the protest, and pessimistic about what effect it might have.

The demand of the day was for the relocation of the Fujia Dahua Petrochemical Co. plant. The Fujia plant produces paraxylene, a toxic chemical used in polyester production. According to international environmental standards, the plant should be located much further from the city centre – but its location when largely unnoticed until this past Monday, when Typhoon Muifa broke a dike, threatened the plant and nearly caused what would have been a devastating chemical leak.

As the enormous attendance shows, this newly-discovered danger was an issue of huge importance to the people of Dalian. As one Chinese man interviewed by a Reuters editor explained,

“It’s for the next generation, our children … The government must be aware that children are the last hope for many Chinese parents. They will do anything against the government if they think their children cannot have a happy, healthy life.”

As Christina Larson mentioned on the Sinica podcast, the fear was spurred on by the government’s suppression of information. A lack of forthcoming information caused people to fear the worst about the risks of PX, and the worst about their government’s response to it.

The other reason that environmental issues can generate huge crowds is that they are one problem – like corruption – that the Chinese government is willing to admit to and tackle publicly. Officials admit there`s an issue there; so can the public.

Nevertheless, my friends`warnings and dire pronouncements had rattled me a little, and the anxiety only increased when my taxi had to stop due to roadblocks. Four blocks away from People’s Square, police officers gathered in enormous groups – planning to do what?

Then one of the police officers broke decorum and smiled broadly at me. “Hello!” he shouted, and his colleagues smiled to. My nervousness evaporated.

The police, as it turned out, were busy blocking traffic all over downtown. They had blocked some pedestrian routes around People’s Square (which was, it seemed, about crowd control than about actually blocking access). They also cut off traffic around Friendship Square, Zhongshan Square, and turned cars away from roads leading across the city to Xinghai Park.

This effectively cleared the city’s main artery of car traffic and swelled the protest, as those who may not even have planned to attend filled the emptied streets. Far from stopping the protest, as I initially suspected, the police were enabling it and making it grow.  

Riot police had completely blocked off the northwest corner of the square. The people there, perhaps not realizing they could enter from the south side, began to push against the police. The police had batons, but never used them, even when people successfully pushed the way through. The crowd cheered whenever anyone ran through. “Aren’t you Dalianese?” one old man asked a policeman blocking his way.

“Are you nervous?” I asked the girl beside me. “A little,” she said. But in the crowd, there seemed to be one camera or cell phone for every person. The police may have been watching the people, but the crowd was watching right back, taking evidence. Then a police officer slapped someone who ran through the barrier. “They hit someone! They hit someone!”, my neighbour started shouting. There must have been hundreds of pictures taken of the hit. I didn’t see any more scuffles that day.

Inside the square, a feeling of celebration prevailed. Riot police lined the south side of the square, but there were spaces in between them and people filtered through easily. People fanned the police, took pictures beside them, and tried to make them smile. You could see them trying not to. The protest had gone on without a permit, and people`s sense of their own power – the power of numbers, the power of being right – was palpable.

In the centre of the square were the actual protesters – about 200 sitting people, some wearing anti-PX shirts with pictures of bombs on them. A dog sitting on an anti-PX sign was a centre of attention. “We want to live, we want our home and garden, we want our Dalian,” read a green banner – green connoting environmentalism. Children and old people were everywhere, unfazed, unworried.

Jonathan Watts, for The Guardian wrote that “tens of thousands” attended the protest. That’s impossible to confirm because of the nature of the protest’s organization – the genius of the label of 散步 or “walk,” is that it both exonerates and involves everyone. There are no doubt tens of thousands of pedestrians in Dalian’s downtown every day – but because of the “walk” label of the protest they were all, suddenly, politicized. 

In the afternoon, Dalian mayor Li Wancai announced that the Fujia factory would be closed down and relocated. The crowd was skeptical, but the promise was repeated in press releases later that evening.

The final reason behind the government’s decision is, of course, opaque. Of course, the protest was probably a large factor in the final decision. (Have you ever said “no” to a crowd of thousands who want something?) And after outpourings of rage over the cover-ups and mishandlings of the Wenzhou train crash, officials may be eager to handle disasters better – the dike break was a near miss.

In addition, a few locals I’ve spoken to suspect that the Fujia factory owner has ties with top government officials, making this issue a power struggle between municipal and top-tier officials. Dalian officials may also have been antagonized by factory personnel – it’s rumored that several government representatives were beaten when they tried to enter the factory grounds.

What does PX mean? It means that people in China care enormously about protecting themselves from environmental contamination. This is an issue that everyone – from my coworkers to taxi drivers, from old to young – seems to care about.

That, however, was not the truly surprising part of the protest. The behaviour of the Dalianese police and government show how the political establishment has come to recognize the urgency of environmentalism and pro-environment policy. Not enough to relocate the damn factory themselves, mind you, but enough to give in when there’s a clear demand. Tackling environmental issues improves the Party’s public standing, while not coming close to threatening its political monopoly.

One of my students reminded me, however, that the government has yet to set a date for Fujia’s departure – and despite the promises, we can’t be certain of the protest’s success until Fujia is truly gone.

On Leaks; Chemical and Otherwise

The news rippled its way through the office by word of mouth. The message had energy – so much so that it found its way into English, and, therefore, found me. 

“Something’s happening on Saturday.” “On Sunday,” someone else said. “It’s because of the typhoon.” “It’s that factory.” It was at People’s Square, everyone agreed on that, but what time, anyway? And why? I tried searching online, and I saw many pages on “August 14 at People’s Square” – but the actual webpages had all been taken down. Word of mouth was king.

Much about this event – a “movement,” some called it, others a “walk” – was heard before I got an explanation for why it was happening.  Soon enough one of my students volunteered one.

Typhoon Muifa, which swept through Dalian last Monday, broke a dike that was protecting the Fujia Dahua Chemical Co. Ltd. building. In fact, I had read about this. The typhoon came close to causing a dangerous chemical leak. But the English-language media I had read (mostly coverage in China’s English-language newspapers) interpreted this as an accident. A frightening one, to be sure, but just an accident.

The people of Dalian, however, did not feel this way.

Chinese reporters and netizens (and one lone, useful English article) revealed that Fujia Dahua was illegally close to the city centre. It should have been kept far away because of its product: p-Xylene, a chemical used in polyester production that is toxic to all living things.

Defying international regulations, the National Reform and Development Commission (China’s economic planning committee) approved the plant back in 2005. Citizens were outraged – they had been living unaware of this threat to their water supply and their lives.

This – call it whatever, but it was a protest – was a demand for the government to move the factory out of town.

“I wouldn’t go,” said my LB. “I think it’s a little dangerous. They’re saying that old people and children shouldn’t go.” We were having lunch in a coworker’s residential complex. 

Using the Socratic method (read: being dumb) I said, “Why should it be dangerous? This protest is over a relatively minor issue – moving a factory isn’t as sensitive as religious protests, or separatism.”

My two coworkers suggested that the police might lose their cool. (That happens in Canada, too, I was thinking)….Then my coworker’s husband spoke up. “We all know that this is about the ‘black society’ (mafia) and the government’s relationship with them.”  That’s what we’re really protesting, he seemed to be suggesting.

“As the country develops, we Chinese are more and more democratic-minded,” he mused.

However, none of my coworkers, friends or roommates had any interest in actually going to this event. “Too far,” one said. “Too dangerous,” said most of my fellow-foreigners.

So, of course, I had to go.