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?

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?

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.

Looking Different

Today, there’s a middle-aged man waiting at the bus stop. My guess is, he isn’t used to seeing foreigners, because he is staring at me, in that open way I suspect is reserved for exotic animals and white girls. He keeps staring. I look him right in the eyes, and he keeps staring, unfazed. I look away, and I can feel his eyes on me. What is he thinking?

I move behind a wall of the bus shelter. He walks right around it and keeps staring. He actually keeps this up for about three minutes flat.

I want to tell him, “I feel uncomfortable when you stare.” (Especially when it’s a man!) But isn’t curiosity about foreigners a good thing? It is in theory. It is, but it makes me feel like I’m in a zoo.

When I walk down the street, people toss out “Hellos” left and right. The first day I arrived, my roommate said, “Don’t answer them. It’s rude.”  “Is it?” I asked. Then I found that “Hellos” have numerous meanings. Mostly, it just means “Hey, you’re white!” Often, it means “Buy my fruit!” “Take my taxi!” Sometimes, people yell “Hello!” and crack up. They’re laughing at themselves, but I feel that my language is the joke.

I went to visit my roommate’s hometown, and when we walked through an alley of pottery sellers, I got the regular chorus of “Hellos”. Translating this as “Buy my stuff,” I smiled and walked on by, but my roommate said, “Hey, you should answer them!” I had become the rude one.

Once teenage girls crept up to me on the beach, when I was in a pack of colleagues, and shouted “Hello!” very loudly. I responded by saying 你好 (hello in Chinese). They screamed in shock.

I arrive at work and walk up to the elevator. The cleaning ladies are standing around, chatting. They get into the elevator with me. “Morning!” one of them says, cracking herself up and giving me a hug. I smile back.

Then, one of the ladies reaches out and grabs my hair. Does she know she’s making me uncomfortable? She strokes my hair and discusses it with her friend, whose hair looks exactly like mine.

I simply don’t understand – is someone being rude? And if they are, how should I respond? And if someone truly is being rude, how can I tell them how I feel? I’m at sea in a series of social signals I can’t make sense of.

And, despite all those things, how can I deal with my own feelings about how people see me? Simply relishing the attention, as many foreigners here do, feels off to me. First, I don’t honestly enjoy it. And second, even if I did, the attention itself feels a bit unfair.

I would like to show people that Canadians are friendly and nice, and like China.  But I can’t decide when to play along with how people treat me, and when not to.

A Chat With the Global Times

Were you aware that Standard & Poor’s downgrade of U.S. credit heralds the fall of Western political systems? No? This Global Times editorial may have the weak  title of “World politics enters uncharted territory,” but it’s hard to miss what the author really wants to say with passages like:

The West can no longer cover up its problems. Large numbers of immigrants have poured into the West; an aging population is bringing escalating pressure on the economy; the rising of emerging powers is challenging Western dominance. However, the West only tries to deal with these problems by highlighting past achievements.

Sub in “China” for “the West” in that one and I think we’d have a publishable American editorial, no? Oh, Global Times, the U.S. has its troubles. So do we all, and it seems that we all like to avoid discussing them by debating the shortcomings of our frenemies.

Western countries are losing the authority of their system. All the major powers have their own problems. The world is losing its leading examples.

Who might take their place, Global Times?

It is hard to predict what this means for China. For the country, the key is to take control of the direction of its reform and avoid serious mistakes.

Well, kudos for the false modesty, Global Times. But what this editorial is building, even if with a number of twisted truths, is an unabashed narrative of Western decline and Chinese ascendance.

From the American press, I learned that the Chinese state is too authoritarian to survive and will soon collapse. Now, from the Chinese press, I learn that “the West” is equally unstable, no doubt soon to implode from sheer arrogance. Oh dear.

Where does this schadenfreude come from? Part of it is in history, and China’s long past of dealing with foreigners who took every opportunity to abuse the country, extract its wealth and demean its people. China’s resurging wealth and stability, then, is a hugely satisfying, and fair ending to a tragic story.

The only problem with that narrative is how blind it can make you to things that don’t fit in neatly. Like China’s own problems, the U.S’ own successes and good ideas. Is it so hard to admit that both nations have huge successes and failures? And both could learn from one another?