On Bike. Off Grid.

Posted on September 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

It’s that time of year again. The Chinese National Day holiday begins tomorrow, and for those of you outside of China keep your eye on the scene in Beijing; I imagine the display of jingoism will be breathtaking. Nevertheless the Chinese do know how to put on a spectacle, so it all should be worth watching.

I on the other hand will be on my bicycle, tucked away in a little corner of Yunnan close to the Burmese border. A friend and I will be cycling from the prefecture-level capital of Baoshan (保山) to Ruili (瑞丽), the once-notorious border town.

Along the way we’ll be going slightly off-course to Tengchong (腾冲), site of an important WWII battle and presently a sleepy town known for its geothermal volcanic activity.

Catch you all in about a week, when I’ll be providing snippets from an upcoming story I’m writing to be featured in the winter edition of Yunnan Magazine.

In the meantime, I’d like to wish my Chinese readers a 国庆节快乐!…

The Laowai Lexicon

Posted on September 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 6 comments

I was thinking it’d be fun to have a laowai lexicon, a glossary of terms in both English and Chinese often on the tip of the tongue of the average laowai. Perhaps with a bit of collaboration and effort we can make it more like the Ayn Rand lexicon! So let’s start with a few:

1. 没有 (meiyou). An all-encompassing term that literally means ‘to not have’, but in practice also means ‘go away, I don’t want to help you’ and ‘We might have it but I don’t really want to look’

2. Rent-a-laowai. This is a temporary job in which one’s sole qualification is being a (white) foreigner. Rent-a-laowai gigs usually consist of modeling, acting, participating on TV game shows, or simply standing around being foreign.

3. 保安 (bao’an). This is (usually) a man who lives in a shack near the main gate of an apartment complex. Many laowais extend great effort in cultivating a good relationship with their bao’an, for the bao’an can be a very important in one’s life. A good bao’an is sort of like a good referee in a basketball game: you don’t even realize he’s there. A bad one might be a thorn in your side, particularly if you routinely arrive home in the small hours with an intoxicated local on your arm.

4. 阿姨 (ayi). This is a woman whom laowais hire to clean and occasionally cook for them. Most ayis are dumpy and middle-aged and have husbands and children of their own. Some laowais avoid ayis out of sheer guilt, though most give in when they realize how affordable ayis are and how much of a hassle it is to clean your own house.

5. 小卖部 (xiao mai bu). These are the ubiquitous shops that exist on practically every street corner in the less-gentrified parts of China. To the laowai, the xiao mai bu is a vital location- only his apartment, place of work, and bar rank as more frequently visited destinations. While most xiao mai bus look the same, more observant laowais quickly figure out which ones sell cold beer, saltines, and other important accessories to the laowai lifestyle.

6.  关系 (guanxi). This is the catch-all Chinese word for relationships, though its meaning is far more significant than the English translation indicates. Because Chinese culture places a lot of emphasis on interpersonal relationships as a means for advancement in society, foreigners tend to use this word anytime they refer to their ‘connections’ or any instance when someone is promoted on any basis beyond merit. Laowais often boast of having good guanxi, usually through a drunken conversation had with a Chinese friend one night.

7. 拉肚子 (la duzi). Ah, la duzi. The scourge of China, and the world’s best excuse for taking a day off. Some time ago I devoted an entire post to the subject because, frankly, it deserves one.

8. 派出所 (pai chu suo). These are the little local police stations that require foreigners to register every time they’ve moved, their visa has changed, or they have left an re-entered the country. Technically, failure to comply results in a hefty fine but enforcement is uneven depending on location, even within the same city. I registered late once and faced no punishment whatsoever, while a friend of mine here in Kunming is regularly visited by the local cop- often at odd hours- to check on his status. There are stories floating around though indicating that enforcement has become much stricter lately due to the upcoming National Day extravaganza.

9. Dialogue- This is a television show on CCTV9, the government-run English-language network on Chinese television. Dialogue is hosted by Yang Rui, an odd looking fellow whose grating interview style has made him notoriously unpopular among the few laowai who watch his show. Yang often has an axe to grind and is something of a Communist Party sycophant.

10. Da Shan- Da Shan is the Chinese name of a Canadian named Mark Rowswell, who has become perhaps the most famous laowai in all of China. Da Shan is admired by the Chinese for his perfect Mandarin as well as his facility with cross-talk, a Chinese comedic art form that, until Da Shan came along, was off-limits to foreigners. Most other laowai hate Da Shan though few can articulate why. Some taxi drivers are fond of comparing a laowai’s Mandarin ability negatively to Da Shan’s, much to the consternation of the laowai.

11. 串 (chuanr). These are little meat kebabs available at every street-food shop in China, particularly in the north and northwest. The average laowai only eats chuanr very late at night after several beers, and chuanr often get the blame for the la duzi (see number 7) the laowai suffers from the subsequent morning.

12. English Corner. This is an activity organized by most language schools in which the Chinese students are free to ask their foreign teachers whatever they’d like. Most foreign teachers find English Corner tedious and boring and contrive excuses to get out of it. The boredom results from having to field the same seven questions the students always ask, including whether the foreigner knows how to use chopsticks or whether he likes eating Chinese food.

13. 白酒 (baijiu). This is Chinese rice wine, available at every dinner banquet in China without exception. Few foreigners profess to liking baijiu, though most will drink it in order to be a good sport. Baijiu is normally downed in shot glasses after a round of celebratory toasting. An evening of baijiu drinking inevitably results in all and sundry becoming very intoxicated. Women are normally exempt from drinking baijiu but some choose to do so anyway.

14. 没办法 (mei banfa). This is an expression that literally means ‘without a way’ but, as is common, has far more uses than its English equivalent. Mei banfa is frequently the last line of defense during an argument over why something hasn’t happened that was supposed to. An utterance of mei ban fa immediately absolves the speaker of any responsibility for the particular problem, making it a useful tool for the lazy laowai.

15. 交班了- (jiao banle). This is what taxi drivers say when they refuse to pick you up because they are changing shifts. For whatever reason, taxi shift change times are very inconvenient in China, causing much angst among the laowai. During jiao banle time the exasperated laowai normally has to wait for a long time for a taxi, only to have them wave him off. Laowais new to China often mistakenly assume they’re the victims of racial discrimination and react to the jiaobanle explanation with pure rage.

16. 你汉语说得很好!(ni hanyu shoude hen hao!) This is an expression that simply means ‘You speak Chinese very well!’. Many Chinese people, bless their hearts, will tell the laowai this even if the laowai has only ever said hello to them. Older Chinese, or Chinese people who have had little exposure to foreigners, often find it difficult to believe that some foreigerns can speak their language. Usually, though, the Chinese will simply say this to be polite though quite a few foreigners still take this as an accurate appraisal of their Mandarin skills.

That’s enough for now. Any to add?

UPDATE: A reader e-mailed to say I’ve made two little Chinese errors in this post: jiaobanle is actually written 交班了 while shuode is actually 说得. I’ve made the corrections above.…

Why People Like Ayn Rand

Posted on September 20th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 18 comments

This excellent Jonathan Chait-penned essay on Ayn Rand has generated a lot of praise and criticism, in addition to some well placed barbs, including this particularly funny one:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

I was one of the many, many college students who read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and came away dazzled by Ayn Rand’s prose and ideas. I still cringe at the memory of discussing my admiration for Rand with my horrified relatives at family gatherings.

Now that I think about it though, what I liked about both books were the narratives rather than the philosophy. Rand’s acolytes and defenders-and the author herself- say that the narrative exists merely as a vehicle for her philosophical ideas, which to them represents the real value in her work.

My take is the opposite. I remember zipping through the first 900 pages of Atlas Shrugged until the protagonist John Galt delivers his famous speech, a 60-odd page philosophical manifesto that is essentially a summation of Rand’s own philosophy, titled objectivism. I suspect Rand intended her speech to be a thrilling revelation for her readers, and I suppose for her defenders it was. To me, though, her speech was a naive and silly philosophical argument that distracted me from my interest in the story.

In his post concerning this subject, Richard writes that Rand’s characters are “embarrassingly one-dimensional, right out of a comic book”. I don’t disagree, but this to me accounts for the enduring popularity of Rand’s work. Her ideas gained popularity because of her characters, not in spite of them.

Is Rand a particularly gifted writer? Yes and no. I’m no literary critic, but her writing style- even in a second language- isn’t scintillating. But the very Manichean nature of her characters appeal to something deep in the reader’s psyche, much in the same way that adult men and women can sit and watch 5 James Bond films in succession.

In fact, I think James Bond offers an interesting comparison to Rand’s characters. In a Bond film, the ludicrous plots are secondary to the status of Bond as an ubermenschen; that is, he is perfectly hip, always says the right things, always kills the bad guys, always gets the girl. Bond is popular because he allows us to escape into a fantasy world, not because the stories in and of themselves are that interesting.

Rand’s characters- Dagny Taggart, Hank Reardon, Howard Roark, and of course Mr John Galt- are presented as idealized humans. Rand herself admitted this.  To reference the quote above, her work is every bit a fantasy as Lord of the Rings. Or Goldfinger, I suppose.…

Tribalism in US Politics

Posted on September 14th, by matt_schiavenza in US Politics. 5 comments

I’ve really been enjoying the spectacle of thousands of American conservative cranks descending onto our nation’s capital to vent their hatred of Barack Obama. Now, if you take the protestors at their word you may come away convinced that they were a united band of citizens concerned about runaway public spending. But this isn’t true. After all, how many of the assembled people voiced these concerns under the last president, under whose guidance US debt skyrocketed? I thought so.

What it boils down to, essentially, is that the people who marched on DC simply don’t like the president. Some of them dislike Obama because he supports (some) abortion rights. Some of them don’t like him because he wants to extend health insurance to all Americans. Some of them don’t like him because they think he’s going to take away people’s guns. Some of them, and let’s be honest here, don’t like him because he’s dark-skinned.

(I think there’s certainly a legitimate criticism to be made about Obama’s performance, which as far as I am concerned has been somewhere between lackluster and mediocre. In my opinion, he hasn’t gone far enough to repudiate Bush-era policies regarding torture and civil liberties. I also think Afghanistan is a quagmire and that we should probably get the hell out. With health care, he has been too timid in asserting his control over the issue and has instead delegated too much of the policy work to the idiots on Capitol Hill. But I digress.)

If you consider the particular policies that define contemporary conservatism- or liberalism- precious little philosophical consistency exists. In my lifetime conservatives have stood for a reduction in government spending, yet almost universally have supported a belligerent, assertive foreign policy.  Conservatives are opposed to abortion yet support capital punishment. They favor de-regulation of business and industry yet want restrictions on cultural products that disagree with their point of view.

I’m sure one could write a similar list about liberals, which drives at my point. These internal contradictions don’t matter so much as a shared sense of identity politics brings.

I consider myself to be fairly open-minded, but my first instinct upon learning that one is conservative is to recoil, almost as if a small voice in my head says that he is one of them. Consider some of the public figures, like blog-goddess Arianna Huffington, who undergo a major transformation mid-career. I haven’t checked, but I’m pretty sure she’s gone from being an across-the-board conservative to an across-the-board liberal.

Likewise, back in the halcyon days of the Bush administration quite a few liberals voted for Bush due to their support for the Iraq War and neo-conservative foreign policy in general. Despite their protestations, these so-called ‘security Democrats’ have pretty much just become run-of-the-mill Republicans in the years since.  Once one sympathizes with the opposition on one issue, it becomes easier to sympathize on every issue, no matter how unrelated they may be from each other.

All of this goes against what we think of ourselves; we imagine that we rationally develop opinions on each matter of public policy and vote according to how we prioritize these opinions. To a certain extent, this is true.

Then again, in the case of American politics, in which there are only two parties of influence who don’t share power in any meaningful way, I think people develop their opinions from an a priori basis. In other words, when you like a politician you’ll probably just like what he likes, no matter what.…

Whatever Happened to Matt?

Posted on September 11th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 2 comments

Well- this space has been quiet lately, hasn’t it? Apologies. I will admit that having a dyfunctional comments section sapped my motivation to post. But due to the genius of my web operator in Melbourne, Australia, things have been fixed. Fresh posts will be back up again soon, but in the meantime I’ll include a personal update for those of you dying to know what I’ve been doing.

  • The small start-up consultancy I work for is set to launch a new website, which I will be revealing when it is ready. Needless to say, we’ve put a lot of work into getting the website up to speed and are excited about it.
  • After threatening to do so for years, I’ve finally decided to go get my Masters degree. The application process has just begun, an endeavor that will surely eat away my weekends and evenings. Fortunately, I’m only applying to one school but I still imagine it’ll be a pain in the arse, as British friends might say.
  • I’ve also re-doubled my efforts to learn Chinese by engaging in twice-weekly language meetings with a Chinese friend. She correctly pointed out that when I’m in my linguistic ‘comfort zone’, I speak very well, but as soon as the subject turns to something I’m less familiar with I tend to sputter. These are the subjects we’ve been going over, an interesting challenge.
  • If Chinese wasn’t enough, I’ve also decided to study Spanish formally for the time since, well, ever. I am one of the few Californians who successfully dodged the language in school, instead focusing on a language no one in the world has spoken in over a thousand years- Latin. Because I can speak Spanish’s cousin language Italian, I think I’ll have a pretty good knack for it. I’m looking forward to finding out.
  • As stimulating as these mental challenges are, exercise- ‘A waist is a terrible thing to mind’ a wiser man once said- has again become a big activity for me. I’ve found a swimming pool near my neighborhood in Kunming that is open until late at night. Something about the soft rhythm of swimming appeals to me. If some people get their best thoughts in the shower, mine arrive when I’m in the pool.
  • Plus there’s Lost Laowai, other writing gigs, and the little thing called a social life.

But you needen’t worry- I’ll be popping ’round here on occasion. Stay tuned.…