Off-Road Article Up

Posted on October 31st, by matt_schiavenza in Self-Promotion. 3 comments

An article I wrote about my experience interpreting for the off-road competition in Jinggu has been published by, a website covering all the ins and outs of Kunming experience. Have a look

Correction: URL originally cited as…

Geography Fun!

Posted on October 29th, by matt_schiavenza in Technology & Society. 4 comments

Since I was a small child I’ve always had a knack for geography. Something about maps fascinate me, and having a good memory for names means I’ve been able to cram tons of geography trivia into my head over the years. Add that to a passion for travel, and you have the recipe for being a geography maven.

Facebook, the ultra-addicting social networking site that everyone I know seems to belong to, has an application in which one can test his geography knowledge. The game is simple: you have ten seconds to find the location of a particular place on a map, and your score is calculated based on how close you get to your intended point and how much time has elapsed.

There are several different challenges, of course, and by far the most popular one is the World Challenge, in which the whole globe is in play. I’ve spent far too much time recently playing the Asian challenge, as a friend of mine here in Kunming and I have engaged in a friendly competition to see who can get the top score. We’ve taken this to ridiculous proportions, and he recently admitted to me that he spent an hour studying a map of Russia and looking up the names of UNESCO heritage sites in Asia.

Most computer games are pointless time-wasters, but I’ve actually learned quite a lot about geography from playing this game. For instance, I can tell you precisely where in Turkmenistan one can find the Parthian Forests of Nisa, or that a nickname for the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar is “Red Hero”. Another unintended consequence of my recent addiction is that I’ve discovered new places I’d like to travel, adding to an already lengthy list.

So there’s nothing absolutely wrong with the geography challenge- it’s wonderful, try it. Though for someone who has an exam in Chinese in three days and hundreds of characters to learn, I could perhaps think of better ways to use my time. …

Accents and such

Posted on October 28th, by matt_schiavenza in Language. 2 comments

In the past year or so, people have told me that I have a weird accent. The change, I guess, was subtle- so subtle that I myself didn’t notice it. Yet at least one out of every three new people I meet look surprised when I say that I’m Californian, born and raised. I occasionally sense a sneaking suspicion on the part of others that somehow I’m such a pretentious phony that I have ditched my normal accent for something new and improved.

It isn’t hard to understand why, if anything, my accent has changed. Until I came to China, the vast majority of my English-speaking friends were Americans. The vast majority of them, in turn, were Californians who putatively shared my accent, so there were no so-called evolutionary pressures on me to alter the way I speak.

In China, though, I’ve worked and hung out with a diverse group of people from all over the Anglophone world. I’ve become good friends with New Zealanders, Australians, Canadians, Englishmen, Scots, and have had plenty of contact with South Africans, Irishmen, Welshmen, and virtually every other type of English-native speaker in the world. In the beginning, I encountered some comprehension problems; words like “pissed” and “loo” and “rooted” totally escaped me. I also hadn’t been used to the substitution of “a bit” for “a little” and “quite” for “pretty”.

After three years, you can imagine that I’ve figured out most of these; and in fact, I’ve even adapted a few myself. I like “queuing”. “Standing in line” now sounds a little strange. I always flinch a little when an American says “pissed” to mean angry, even though this was the only usage of the word I knew for most of my life. Funny, that.

I’ve held on to some Americanisms. Whenever one from the UK or commonwealth says “torch” I think of a medieval European monks wandering in castles rather than flashlights. And I won’t stop saying “sure”, whether as an affirmative “Can I borrow a pen?” “Sure!” or an emphatic “I sure am!” And while an ass is indeed a donkey, it also is a rear end, and “arse”, well, isn’t anything at all.

My Kiwi, Aussie, and English friends haven’t picked up nearly as much American English, which I would say results from having been bombarded with American media their whole lives. American slang and usage just isn’t as interesting to them as theirs is to us, for they’re heard it all before. A pity but understandable.

Well…it’s off to the loo before hitting the sack. I’m right knackered, mate.…

Dinners- Where Food Quality Doesn’t Matter

Posted on October 22nd, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. 5 comments

Kunming’s best foreign-run restaurant is called Salvador’s, serving an eclectic mix of Mexican, Italian, sandwiches, coffees, ice cream, and alcohol at reasonable prices. Recently, its American owners hired me to teach their waitresses English; a necessity for a restaurant that is listed in Lonely Planet and draws a lot of customers who can’t speak Chinese. In exchange for teaching three hours per week, I eat and drink (everything but alcohol) for free. A good deal for everyone.

This morning Josh, one of its owners, explained the curious economics of the restaurant trade in China. Salvadors, despite its good to excellent food, attracts very few middle to upper class Chinese. One reason, Josh posited, is that its prices are actually not high enough. Because the Chinese tend to eat in groups, and because one person always pays, going to a less-than-expensive restaurant is considered a loss of face for whomever picks up the tab. As such, expensive restaurants serving mediocre to bad food remain very popular for the simple fact that the prices are high. And as Chris pointed out recently, this phenomenon isn’t limited to restaurants serving foreign food.…

The Sultry Jazz Singer..In Chinese

Posted on October 21st, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. No Comments

A few words on the Chinese girl who sang at the jazz concert last night. She stood maybe five feet tall, and wore an all-black Beatnik style outfit that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in early 60s Greenwich Village. She also had quite a stage presence; jiving and swaying and singing in a rich, sultry voice that indicated she had full confidence in her ability to perform the song. For those who think all Chinese girls are little Oriental flowers speaking softy and smiling meekly, there’s a jazz singer in Kunming willing to prove you wrong. …

International Kunming

Posted on October 21st, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 2 comments

One of Kunming’s charms is that it manages to be both cosmopolitan and intimate at the same time, something unique in China. Certainly, Shanghai and Beijing and Hong Kong have more international flavor, but all three are enormous, bustling, expensive cities. Kunming isn’t. While large by global standards, Kunming has the feel of a mid-sized provincial Chinese capital, which is to its benefit.

My Saturday night showed that expat life in Kunming goes beyond the odd foreigner bar and pirated DVDs. I first went to a Scandinavian art gallery called Nordica to watch a jazz concert, performed by a quintet featuring four Chinese musicians and a laowai saxophonist. The musicians played a combination of their own compositions (including the pianist’s tribute to his father) and jazz standards; it was fun hearing “In a Sentimental Mood” and “Summertime” played so well. The art gallery featured lots of modern pieces and generally had the feel of a loft you’d expect to encounter in San Francisco or New York.

Then, it was off to central Kunming’s largest bar “The Hump” for a Brazilian/Latin dance party, organized by the city’s South American community. They offered free salsa lessons, and while I ambled along gamely I wisely ceded the floor to the more coordinated dancers present. A Brazilian band (featuring an acoustic guitar and a bongo) entertained everyone except my Scottish friend who was unable, due to the crowds, to see the television screen showing an English premier league match.

I ran out of gas around midnight and decided to return home before turning into a pumpkin. This prevented me from heading to the English pub to watch the Rugby World Cup final, which I learned just now was won by South Africa. I hadn’t really watched a full rugby match before last month, but given an opportunity I could become a fan. And with the 49ers so lousy and Cal losing two in a row, maybe that moment will come sooner rather than later.

The same English pub, incidentally, has for the benefit of the Yank expats in town opened early this morning to broadcast Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, played thousands of miles (and twelve time zones) away in Boston, Massachusetts.

I stupidly did not bring my camera out, so no photos I’m afraid. …

It’s The Language, Stupid

Posted on October 19th, by matt_schiavenza in Language. 1 Comment

This post at Coming Anarchy, discussing whether linguistic fluency is required to be a regional expert, reminds me of a story I recently heard from John, an American friend of mine who first visited mainland China in 1986.

John learned Chinese in Taiwan years before, so he found his experience there (confined to Beijing and Xi’an) interesting and not unpleasant. At the time, few signs were translated into English (or even in pinyin) and few Chinese were conversant in the language. Most Chinese were even less used to foreigners than they are today, so as a result several of the non-Chinese speaking foreigners John encountered described their experience as a nightmare. He gave one example that strikes me as a perfect illustration of how not understanding Chinese makes life difficult here.

In the Xi’an train station, passengers formed two lines depending on their destination. These lines were clearly labeled in Chinese but not at all translated into English. A foreign man spent forty-five minutes waiting in a line that turned out to be wrong; when he got to the ticket booth, he was informed that he had to go into the other line. He, understandably, blew up in frustration. Yet his problem would have easily been averted if he only understood written Chinese.

These days, life in China is much easier for those unable to speak the language. I would wager, though, that every newbie in China has had moments similar to the poor gentleman in John’s story. I’ve certainly had my fair share of headaches, intemperate outbursts, and extremely frustrating experiences in my three years in China. With very few exceptions, all were caused by my inability to speak and understand Chinese.

Chinese is worth studying for a lot of reasons, but not having to deal with hassles is one of the best. …

Banquets Galore

Posted on October 16th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. No Comments

(photo of banquet by Flickr user JustineD)

One of the perks of being an honored guest at the Jinggu competition was being invited to several Chinese banquet dinners. For the unitiated, banquet dinners are quite different for anything we have in the West (excluding Chinese diaspora communities).

So what is a Chinese banquet like? Picture a large dining room with several circular tables. Each table is already set prior to the guests’ arrival, and in some cases even the food sits before anyone sits down. Most banquet rooms have a stage and a public address system, used by dignitaries to make speeches or for an artistic performance of some sort.

Food, to be certain, is abundant. In Chinese culture, throwing a dinner party in which all the food is eaten is a loss of face, so most hosts mitigate this by ordering or preparing far more than anyone could possibly eat. So much for the old Western notion to clean your plate because of the starving children in China.

At a large Western dinner gathering, guests slowly sip beer or wine and chat at a normal volume; shouting, use of a cell-phone, or other distractions are frowned upon. Not in China. The Chinese even have a term, 热闹 (re4nao) literally meaning “hot and noisy” describing their preferred method of dining out. People shout, sing, and cry. Rather than guests drinking at their own pace, those seated around the table are required to stand up and deliver toasts (or be toasted) by other guests, punctuated by shots of beer or 白酒 (bai2jiu3), which a type of spirit found throughout the country.

There is no shame at getting drunk, and in fact, most of the men are expected to partake in binge drinking sessions or else risk derision from friends and colleagues. One doesn’t ordinarily associate Chinese culture with machismo, but for men, those able to drink to excess are considered strong and manly, while those who can’t (or won’t) are considered weak and womanly. I have seen several people at Chinese banquets drink so much they’ve passed out or vomited, and yet nobody seemed to find this inappropriate.

In addition, cigarettes are offered to all male guests, and as a non-smoker I’m occasionally embarrassed when I constantly refuse them. In the past, Chinese men who did not accept cigarettes were accused of causing a loss of face, though finally today there’s some evidence that the virtues of not smoking are seeping through the public consciousness.

Westerners new to China sometimes feel overwhelmed by these banquets, as we’re used to a more relaxed style of eating and drinking. Yet I often wonder whether Chinese people would find our custom hopelessly boring and uptight. Funny how that works.…

Jinggu Rally- What Was I Doing There, Anyway?

Posted on October 13th, by matt_schiavenza in Jinggu Rally. No Comments

Apologies dear readers: being busier than usual this past week delayed this upcoming series of Jinggu-related posts. I’m still gathering information, but in the meantime, let me explain how I got involved in the first place.

Several weeks ago, over a Korean barbeque dinner, my friend Matti asked me if I’d be willing to serve as an interpreter for a 4×4 off-road competition he was organizing in a town called Jinggu. The event organizers had invited four Malaysians and an Australian to serve as marshals, and translators were needed to help them communicate with the Chinese competitors and referees.

I explained that while I got around fairly well, my Chinese wasn’t that great, and certainly not good enough to do any real interpreting. Matti smiled and said, “Don’t worry. It’ll be fairly easy. You won’t have to learn the names of engine parts or anything.”.

“Good,” I thought, “because I don’t even know those in English.”

I said I’d think about it, but before long I called Matti and signed up. In retrospect, the decision to go was obvious. All meals, drinks, and accommodation fees would be covered. We would stay in a comfortable hotel for three nights, then camp beside a reservoir three nights (the last featuring a wild-boar roast), and finally stay one more night in the hotel before coming home. I’d be given a free sleeping bag, t-shirt, baseball camp, and possibly other bits of memorabilia. I’d speak Chinese all week, thus giving me a productive feeling even while on vacation. There might even be a bit of money thrown in too, he said.

The alternatives were less than appealing. The first week of October is China’s Golden Week, and in celebration of their national day (Oct. 1) the whole country packs their bags and goes on vacation. Yunnan, even off-season, is among China’s most popular tourist destinations. I had nightmarish visions of fighting for hotel beds, being poked in the eye by a sea of umbrellas, and finding that no buses would be returning to Kunming- ever. I also imagined my already tight budget being stretched by the costs of traveling, and frankly- in a week it’s sort of pointless going anywhere far away. Staying in Kunming didn’t sound fun, either.

So off I went. Along the way, I learned that:
1. There is a difference between rallies and 4×4 off-road competitions.
2. Off-roading is not the world’s best spectator sport.
3. Interpreting, especially on camera, is stressful as hell.
4. Baijiu isn’t so bad if you mix it with mango juice.
5. Camping without a sleeping back sucks. Fortunately I only had to do this one night.

More to come…much more. …

Yellow Peril

Posted on October 12th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. 2 comments

Several years ago, a classmate of mine of Korean descent referred to himself as “yellow” during a literature lesson. Our teacher, a brilliant if eccentric lesbian, said, “You’re not yellow, you’re a lovely shade of brown!”.

This exchange, of course, happened in the Bay Area.

I was reminded of this comment recently when my teacher told our class that many Chinese people are proud of their “yellow skin and black eyes”. I chuckled, and said that where I came from, people of Asian descent don’t commonly refer to their skin color as “yellow”, believing the term to be derogatory. This comment struck my teacher as very odd. “But our skin IS yellow,”she said.

Being Caucasian myself (another ridiculous term, but that’s a discussion for another time) I actually don’t know whether Asian-Americans use the term “yellow”, but I seem to recall it being deemed offensive. Funny that in China, the color reference is embraced.
(Photo of Chinese girl by Flickr user H@r@ld)…