No Movies in San Francisco?

Posted on April 28th, by matt_schiavenza in Film, Media. No Comments

Four years ago, after boarding a flight from Milan back home to San Francisco, I discovered that the in-flight movie was The Princess Diaries. “Great,” I thought, “why can’t they ever have anything I want to see?”.

But, as one does on a flight, I watched because there was nothing better to do. To my delight, I found that the film was set in San Francisco, and contained a number of pretty shots of the city. I remember feeling very excited that within hours I’d be there myself.

Alas, moments like these may become rare in the future. As the San Francisco Chronicle reports, high costs have deterred filmmakers from shooting in the city, instead opting for less expensive states or Canada. In the past year, the only film made entirely in San Francisco was Milk, concerning the assassination of the openly gay city supervisor in 1978. Along with Zodiac, the recent film about the Bay Area’s most notorious serial killer, the only movies being made in San Francisco these days seem to be specifically about San Francisco history.

Oh, well. If movies stop being made in my American hometown, I suppose a film industry in my Chinese home of Kunming will have to do.…

Torch Gets Some Peace…in North Korea

Posted on April 28th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events. No Comments

After the controversy in Paris, London, San Francisco, and now Seoul, the Olympic Torch finally found itself in a friendly port: Pyongyang, North Korea.

China, of course, is one of the hermit kingdom’s sole allies in the world, providing Kim Jong Il’s regime with the bulk of its international economic aid. What China gets out of this arrangement is less clear. Due to North Korea’s extreme poverty, thousands flock across the border into China each year in search of a better life. Those caught are returned, and those returned are subjected to heinous punishments for desertion.

This policy, little known outside East Asia, played a large role in the demonstrations in Seoul. Apparently, a large number of the anti-China protestors were North Korean defectors angered by Beijing’s cooperation with the Kim regime. Others were South Koreans sympathetic to the defectors’ cause.

The West would like Beijing to apply more pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear program and implement economic reforms- ones that have been so successful in both China and Communist Vietnam. The Communist Party has shown some willingness to do so, but has mostly stuck behind its ideologically-similar neighbor. The reception the Torch received in Pyongyang showed that, at least in the eyes of one country, China can do no wrong.…

Safe in China

Posted on April 28th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events, Daily Life. No Comments

Given the recent surge of anti-Western sentiment in China, I’ve been asked by a few people elsewhere whether I’ve noticed any changes in my daily life here. The answer to that remains no.

Being a foreigner in China is, and has long been, a pretty sweet deal. By virtue of being a college-educated native English speaker, I’m very employable and comparatively well-paid. I can dress however I want, go wherever I want, and feel little restraint when interacting with Chinese people. Friendships and relationships between Chinese and foreigners occur naturally and fluidly. Travel restrictions, with the exception of Tibet, are very mild. Until recently, obtaining a lengthy Visa stay was not difficult. Entering and leaving the country is far less of a hassle than it is, say, in the United States (even for American citizens).

I was able to rent an apartment with no strings attached. There are Internet restrictions, but they’re annoying rather than prohibiting. I don’t feel like I have to censor myself when talking to locals, even about political issues. Physically, I’m safe. I don’t worry about walking in the city alone at night. Pickpocketing and petty theft exist, but are not rampant (in my experience).

I do, of course, have my issues with China. The air pollution can be stifling. The noise and traffic give me headaches. There are a lot of people, places, and things I miss from back home. And while I’ve improved dramatically, language barriers can sometimes make simple tasks somewhat challenging. I also find Chinese nationalism troubling, as well as the general lack of creativity and independent thought. But nationalism exists everywhere, and China is far from the only society to preach conformity as a supreme virtue.

So for anyone worrying that I’m living in a Stalinist hellhole, under siege by a thuggish government, feel at ease. Things are fine.…

HSK Post-Mortem

Posted on April 28th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. 1 Comment

Well, that was fun. My first (and hopefully last) go at the HSK exam is over, and in a couple of weeks I’ll find out how I did. Overall, I’d say I didn’t do any better or worse than I had on the most recent practice exams, which would mean I’ve still got quite a bit of progress to make before I get my desired result. Oh well- there’s time!

On the HSK (or any standardized test) there are three types of questions: ones to which you know the answer, ones that you don’t know but can make a reasonably educated guess, and ones that you have no idea how to answer. My goal over the past two months has been to reduce the third category to nil while raising the proportion of the first to the second (got that?). I still haven’t gotten there. Yesterday, there were still quite a few questions in each section that totally befuddled me. Gotta learn more characters.

Some other observations:

– There were fifty-odd students in my test room, and all but three (counting me) were Asian. Before the exam I took an unscientific survey of which Asian countries these students came from (mostly from listening to their chatter) and discovered that the vast majority were Thai or Vietnamese. There were a few Koreans thrown in too. The other two non-Asians were both Italian.

-Two Vietnamese boys sitting directly in front of me chatted throughout the test and took turns looking at each other’s answers. Finally, the proctor came over and told them to knock it off, but by that point the exam was nearly over.

– The HSK takes about two and a half hours, and there are no breaks in between sections. By the end, my brain was fried and I could think of nothing else but the burrito I was planning to eat for lunch.

-The test itself? For people who haven’t taken HSK before, there are four sections: listening (听力), grammar (语法), reading comprehension (阅读) and comprehensive (综合). These sections are further divided into sub-sections: three for listening, and two for the rest. For me, the easiest parts on the practice exams have always been the first two parts of listening, all of grammar, and the second part of reading comprehension. The harder parts were the third part of listening (long passages followed by a few comprehension questions), the first part of reading comprehension (heavy on idioms or 成语), and all of comprehensive, of which the second part (fill in the blanks) I’ve found next to impossible.

On the test, I found the third part of listening remarkably easy and the fill-in-the-blanks surprisingly doable. The second part of reading comprehension, though, was really, really hard: the passages chosen were dense and full of vocabulary I haven’t learned, and the questions seemed trickier than usual.

Now that it’s over, I feel relieved. Even if my results aren’t as good as I hope, I’ve learned quite a lot just by intensely studying the language, and I’m pretty confident that with the same amount of persistence I’ll find the exam far easier if (when) I take it again later in the year.

I’m sure kicked my ass, by the way.…

What Have I Been Doing Lately?

Posted on April 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life, Film. 4 comments

It’s been awhile since I’ve written a personal update, so here goes:

– For the past two months I’ve been enrolled in two Chinese classes at my language school, one an “comprehensive” (综合) course at the intermediate level and another a class specifically designed to prepare me for the HSK exam, which I take this Sunday. The exam, needless to say, will not be easy. Although I’ve lived in China for more than three years, this is only my third semester of formal study and there are a lot of gaps in my knowledge. In order to get the results I want, I have to get at least 55% of the answers correct on each of the four exam sections, a rather daunting task.

The preparation has been equal parts frustrating and encouraging. I do feel frustrated when I botch a reading comprehension practice exam, or fail to comprehend the gist of a three-minute monologue spoken in rapid Chinese. But recently I picked up a newspaper and discovered that I can understand quite a lot, something I couldn’t say for myself as recently as this February. I’m also confident that, barring failure this time around, I’ll pass with flying colors should I have to re-take the exam in November.

– In late March, the cold, wet winter stopped and spring finally arrived: Kunming’s best season. For the past three weeks, we’ve enjoyed nearly non-stop sunshine and temperatures approaching 30 degrees (high 80s) without undue humidity. As a result, I’ve been enjoying the great outdoors more than before. I’ve taken two separate trips to beautiful Fuxian Lake, located about 140 kilometers south of Kunming. I also accompanied my friends on a decent bike journey (26 kilometers round-trip) to a reservoir located near the city’s western hills. For a native Californian, being able to go swimming again has been blissful. I can only hope the good weather will continue up until the inevitable arrival of the rainy season sometime in early June.

-Two friends of mine received a pregnant cat, and as happens, a litter resulted. I offered to adopt one of the kittens, a springy little dude I’ve dubbed Chairman Meow (yes, unoriginal, but I couldn’t resist. I mostly call him Chairman). I haven’t had cats around since I was a small child and on both occasions the little buggers ran away. I’m hoping to make amends this time around, though I fear for the upholstery on my sofa.

– Been watching a lot of movies lately. The best I’ve seen has been Juno, a comedy about a teen pregnancy that’s fresh and funny. I also really enjoyed Persepolis, an adaptation of the graphic novels of Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian who grew up during the revolution and later emigrated to France. Fantastic graphics, and a touching story.

I’ve also seen two films that managed to combine vulgarity with sweetness, with varying results. The first was Clerks II, the sequel to the mid-90s vintage Clerks, a film I found hysterical when I was a teenager. The second version is largely the same, but the jokes are mostly raunchy for the sake of raunchiness and I found the romantic bit contrived and sappy. I usually don’t criticize unrealistic pairings of mediocre men with gorgeous women (movies are a fantasy, remember), but the pairing of the lame, unattractive, and miserable Dante with the stunningly sexy Rosario Dawson just…wasn’t…convincing…enough.

Superbad was much better. I love high school teen comedies, and this is one of the best I’ve seen. Like in Clerks II, the dialogue is risque but for some reason it seemed more natural, perhaps because I was in high school less than a decade ago and can definitely relate. Also, the story had a sweetness that didn’t feel forced, and I liked were the film’s female protagonists: they weren’t twenty-seven year old supermodels but normal looking teenagers, and I liked how they were just as irreverent and sassy as the boys who were chasing them. Highly recommended.…

Crazy English

Posted on April 22nd, by matt_schiavenza in Language. No Comments

A few years ago in Fuzhou, I arrived in class and discovered my students whipped into a frenzy. “What’s going on?” I asked. “Oh, the Crazy English guy is speaking at our school!” Crazy English? I had no idea what that meant, and gave the matter no further thought. Later that day, when walking past the soccer field on my way home, I heard a booming voice yell “persistence!” followed by thousands of others chiming back in unison. I’ve never thought much of mass rallies, and this Crazy English meeting certainly seemed like one to me. No thanks.

Last year, while in the northern Yunnan town of Zhongdian, I walked into a China Mobile store to add money to my phone. The clerk, a tall young man, began speaking to me in an unusually loud voice. “I have been told the best way to meet foreigners is to talk to them so I want to talk to you how are you my name is Michael are you well good well welcome to our city this is beautiful isn’t it well what kind of phone card you want to buy?”

When I mentioned the incident to a laowai resident I met later that evening, he knew of the clerk. “He’s just one of these Crazy English followers.” Ah ha.

I knew Crazy English was popular, if scanning the English-learning textbooks at my local Xinhua bookstore is any indication. But in this New Yorker profile, “popular” isn’t the right word for it. Crazy English is huge.

The profile is interesting and well-written, and goes into the odd relationship between mastering a foreign language and fervent patriotism. For those of you too busy or disinclined to read a seven-page magazine article, here’s a brief description of Crazy English:

The movement was begun about fifteen years ago by a failed engineering student in western China who discovered he could only learn English well by shouting it aloud. He managed to improve so rapidly that soon he was completely fluent in the language, placing second in a provincial competition. His success sparked adherents, and sensing an opportunity, the student (named Li Yun) set up a business that has grown into a nationwide phenomenon. If you teach English somewhere in China, chances are one of your students either uses or has experimented with Li’s method.

What’s interesting about Crazy English is that it challenges the classically East Asian notion of “losing face”. When learning a language, the only practical method is to make a lot of mistakes and learn from them. In Chinese society, students are often reluctant to speak up because they fear embarrassing themselves with their poor English.* Whatever else one may think of his methods (or his ego, or political beliefs), Li Yun corrects this flaw and it is not difficult to see why he has been so successful.

*To clarify, adults everywhere have trouble learning foreign languages for the exact same reason, but the difficulty is amplified in East Asia for largely cultural reasons.…

Bravery and Wisdom at Duke

Posted on April 21st, by matt_schiavenza in China and World, Current Events. 3 comments

Perhaps it’s due to my nature, or my undergraduate background in social science, but I’ve always taken a dispassionate, analytical view toward current events. I love reading the newspaper, in particular. At first glance, an article on the front page illustrates a current event: the who, what, when, where, and how. The “why”, though, is typically underexplained or omitted altogether, and for me one of the pleasures of reading the news is scratching the surface and getting to that “why”. Like in a science experiment, variables multiply and interact, and while some situations are simply too complex to rationalize, the mere process of seeking leads to an enhanced understanding of the world.

But sometimes, certain items in the paper provoke an more emotional response. This was the case when I came across a Washington Post piece (excerpted at Peking Duck) by a university student named Grace Wang, a young woman who recently found herself in a spot of trouble due to an innocent act of goodwill.

A brief summary: Wang hails from Qingdao, a large and lovely port city in eastern China. At Duke, where she studies, she encountered a demonstration pitting the university’s Chinese students against an assortment of pro-Tibetan protestors. Hoping to facilitate a civil discussion, Wang discovered that neither side wished to interact with the other and instead were reduced to shouting epithets and slogans. This obstruction only prompted Wang to try harder, but before long she found herself under verbal attack from the Chinese camp, members of which calling her a traitor. The abuse and threats traveled across the ocean to her native China, where her parents have been forced into hiding and their home defaced with dung.

Clearly, this situation would not be easy for anyone to deal with, much less a young university student living in a foreign country. Yet from her editorial, Wang comes across as wise, brave, intelligent, and absolutely correct. The idiots on the message boards who abuse, threaten, and slam her may consider her a traitor, but she is a credit to China and this country would be a lot better off if there were more people like her.

Various aspects of China trouble me, but none more so than the brainless nationalism festering like a sore in this country. Yes, I realize nationalism exists everywhere. But really- this sort of thing is absolutely ridiculous and reflects very, very poorly on a country that should really be above it.…

Someone Else Hates The French

Posted on April 21st, by matt_schiavenza in China and World. 4 comments

The recent brouhaha surrounding the Olympic Torch concerned the demonstrations in three of the cities that hosted the torch relay: London, Paris, and San Francisco. As far as I could tell, the no one demonstration was bigger than any other, but for some reason the resulting backlash here in China has been directed against the French. Here in Kunming, I’ve met a handful of locals participating in a nationwide boycott of Carrefour, the French supermarket giant with thousands of stores throughout the country. At the foreign students’ dormitory opposite Yunnan University, the French flag has been defaced, while the American and British ones have been left untouched.

Why are the French taking it in the shorts? Well, I suppose a lot of Chinese already dislike the US so there’s no sense haranguing us any further. But shouldn’t the British at least be the recipient of some Chinese animus?

I was discussing this subject today with two other Americans who attend my school. We were joking that the Chinese, in this anti-French phase, are oddly allying themselves with the American right-wing. Five years ago, when France refused to participate in our misadventure in Iraq, the resulting American backlash was extensive. A congressman from North Carolina introduced a bill re-naming French Fries “freedom fries”. A conservative friend of my parents announced he was canceling his summer trip to France, while another (a nominally anti-Bush Democrat) said he no longer would purchase Grey Goose vodka.

France was hardly the only country opposed to the Iraq War. Germany also refused to help, but I don’t recall anyone getting too upset about it. When the Spanish pulled out in ’04, I doubt very many tapas restaurants lost business. Yet even today, when the majority of Americans have turned against the war, a bizarre grudge against the French still exists.

Much of this is cultural- for whatever reason France and America don’t mix all that well despite being consistent allies for over two hundred years. Unlike the industrious Germans and the sturdy Brits, the libertine French seem to stand in opposition to bedrock American values. Is it the topless sunbathing? The hairy armpits? The artsy-fartsy films? The smelly cheese? Godless sexual freedom?

If culture is the key variable here, then its application to the current Chinese/French dust-up makes perfect sense. The Chinese are renowned for their work ethic, while the French infamously adopted a 35-hour work week. In France, a nude woman on a beach or in a shampoo commercial would alarm no one. In China, a moderately-revealing bikini raises eyebrows. A morning espresso and croissant doesn’t jive with tea and 包子.

I jest, of course, but somehow exploring the actual underlying causes to the current Chinese two minute hate against France seems a thankless task.

PS- For the record: as a socially libertine, atheistic, wine-drinking, wishy-washy San Francisco liberal who prefers driving fuel-efficient import cars, I of course like France and the French very much. Here are eight reasons why (not entirely safe for work)

PPS- For a take on how absurd the French backlash has gotten, read Ryan at Lost Laowai

A Coffee Battle

Posted on April 21st, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. 5 comments

Salvadors, my favorite cafe in Kunming, employs me to teach three waitresses English each week in exchange for free food and non-alcoholic beverages. The cafe serves only non-Chinese fare: burritos and nachos, falafel, homemade ice cream, coffees, and teas. The clientele mostly consists of homesick Westerners and curious Chinese, and the business does quite well: even on days when the rest of the neighborhood is quiet, Salvadors always seems packed.

The waitresses mostly come from the minor Yunnanese city of Lincang, and all are young. Their English is mostly limited to the most basic service-industry phrases and menu items, and as a result communication problems regularly occur.

Today, while having a (free) cappuccino and plate of roasted potatoes, I overheard a European man arguing in broken English with Ping Di, the littlest and feistiest of all the waitresses. When he started raising his voice, she glanced at me and asked me to mediate. I walked over and asked him if he needed any help. Through his heavily-accented complaints and Ping Di barking behind me in Chinese, it took me awhile to get the story straight.

At Salvadors, bottomless cups of American-style drip coffee is served until 2 pm, at which point customers have to switch to an Americano if they want a regular cup’o’joe. The drip coffee (called 普通咖啡 or “common coffee”) costs 12 yuan (about $1.75) a cup, while a single Americano is 14. A double Americano goes for 18, “expensive” for China but certainly not in comparison to what a similar item costs elsewhere in the country.

The man had ordered a “tall black coffee” at 11 am in the morning and got a cup of Salvadors’ drip. He came back at 3 and ordered another, but due to the 2pm policy Ping Di couldn’t serve him the same. So hearing the word “tall”, she made him a double Americano. He finished it and got the bill, expecting to pay 12. When she asked for 18, he was apoplectic.

We weren’t getting anywhere in English, but fortunately I correctly placed his accent and began speaking to him in Italian, my second language. I explained how after 2 regular coffees aren’t available and that this was mentioned in large print, in English, on the menu. He accused Ping Di (who is all of 21 and while feisty always works hard and tries to be fair) of trying to cheat him by charging 18 for a coffee. “I could eat a full meal for that much in Kunming,” he said.

Sensing his inexperience, I asked him if he had ever been anywhere else in China. He said no, that he had come from Vietnam and Kunming was his first-ever stop in the country. “Well,” I reasoned, “if you go to Shanghai or Beijing and get a decent Americano, you’ll be paying at least 40 or 50 yuan. If you go anywhere else you simply won’t find one. 18 yuan is less than 2 euro. You expected to pay 12. Why argue over 6 yuan?”

He paid up, but loudly said in English that he wasn’t ever coming back. After he left, Ping Di and a couple of the other waitresses looked annoyed but unshaken. They asked me what he had said. I said that he thought she was trying to cheat him, and how quite a few Western travelers get a phobia about being swindled in Asia. She replied that she has never tried to cheat anyone and why couldn’t he look at the menu? Also, she added, six yuan couldn’t be much for a rich European. What was his problem?” The other girls and I shared a laugh, but it struck me as fairly representative of how those from wealthy countries often behave when traveling in a cheaper, developing nation.

In Southeast Asia and southwestern China, travelers are attracted not only by the culture and scenery but also by how far their money goes. Somehow, they expect Kunming to have the creature comforts of Paris but at a fraction of the cost. They’ll balk at paying more than 50 yuan for a hotel room yet complain about unreliable showers and hard mattresses. They’ll order a feast at a local restaurant for the same price yet whine about loud patrons, unhygenic chopsticks, and little bones in their fish soup. And they’ll order an Americano, for goodness sake, and wail at being supposedly cheated out of six yuan.

To be fair, most travelers I’ve encountered from the West are much more good-humored than the (rather uncharacteristic) Italian I met today. But it’s funny how the same people who’ll drop 100 euro on a dinner for two at home will cling to six yuan (60 cents) as if it were their life savings. While not realizing that six yuan, to a Chinese university student, means breakfast, lunch, and bottomless cups of tea.…

A Very Important Post About La Duzi

Posted on April 18th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life, Language. 1 Comment

In River Town, his account of spending two years teaching English in a small Sichuanese city, Peter Hessler recalled that he and his Peace Corps site mate began speaking an English/Chinese patois called “Fuling English”. The logic was simple: the two would converse in English but would liberally sprinkle Chinese words into their conversation out of convenience. Far from pretension, this habit occurs among every foreigner in China who speaks even a little Mandarin. Some words, phrases, and expressions simply spring to mind faster in an adopted tongue.

For instance, the term 麻烦 (ma fan) in Chinese loosely means “trouble” but is used to describe any situation that might be difficult or irritating. (Come to think of it, 麻烦 and the Italian term “casino” mean roughly the same and are both better than any English equivalent). Often, conversations between foreigners will go like this:
“Should we take the bus?”
“Nah, too 麻烦. Let’s grab a cab”.

Another, of course, is 拉肚子 (la duzi). Even foreigners fresh off the boat know this expression- I learned it in Lianyungang even before I could speak enough Chinese to order food in a restaurant. La duzi literally means “loose bowels” and rolls easily off the tongue of everyone in China, given its unfortunate prevalence in daily life. For such an unpleasant experience, “la duzi” is a rather pretty word- it could be the name of a fancy Italian coffee you buy at Whole Foods. Its efficacy is undeniable: say “la duzi”, and no further explanation is needed. Why didn’t you come into work this morning? “La duzi”. Ah.

There just isn’t any good way to express “la duzi” in English. There’s diarrhea, of course, a disgusting word that makes even the coarsest among us recoil in horror. Then there’s “the shits”, which, in addition to containing an expletive, rather inelegantly describes the condition. “The runs” is slightly better but not particularly evocative. From 11th grade English I recall John Steinbeck referring to “the skitters” in The Grapes of Wrath, but the reference is too obscure for modern usage. Bashful Americans typically use a roundabout way to refer to “la duzi”, offering something like “Well, my stomach isn’t happy and so punished me a bit” or “a bit of a tummy bug”.

Fortunately, in the US and other developed countries, “la duzi” doesn’t happen very often, and when it does, there’s usually a direct cause. Most sufferers can identify a glass of spoiled milk or a moldy bagel as the culprit, thus remedying the situation. Yet in China, and in other developing countries, “la duzi” can strike at any time and for any reason. Even those foreigners who avoid street food and brush their teeth with filtered water cannot evade it. Most simply accept “la duzi” as a fact of life, an almost monthly occurrence that must be endured.

An English friend of mine recalled a conversation he had with his newly-arrived English boss, a teacher at the school.

M: “Hello Robert, I won’t be coming in to teach today, I’m very sorry.”
R: “What’s the matter?”
M: “拉肚子”
R: “What?”
M: “Oh, I’ve got diarrhea pretty bad..don’t think I can leave home”.
R: “Come on. That’s your excuse?”
M: (getting annoyed), “Look, I’ve been on the toilet six times in the past half-hour. I can’t risk anything happening during class.”
R: “Well, this is bloody inconvenient”.
M: “Can you put Mr. Li (Chinese boss) on?”
R: “Fine”
Mr Li: “你好 Mark. What’s the matter.”
M: “拉肚子. I can’t come in today”
Mr Li: “Yes, fine, I understand. See you tomorrow.”
(hangs up)

Pretty much sums it up.

(For obvious reasons, I deemed it prudent not to include any photos with this post).…