Bystander Apathy in China and Other Social Ills: Epilogue (Student Essay)

I’ve pretty much said everything I wanted to say in the last 4 posts, but a couple of weeks ago a student handed in a rather insightful essay which includes a part about his views on China, which I thought wraps things up somewhat. The rest of his essay was actually about horror movies, so I am not going to include the whole thing. It was an assignment for a course I’m teaching in China that compares Chinese and Western popular films (the name of the course is something like Comparative Contemporary Literature in Chinese and English, which very few English teachers can actually teach, so films was the best I could do for it. I’m probably going to do a couple of postings on Chinese films later).

The last part of the essay (with translations of Chinese words but no changes otherwise):

[…]

The Eye has unique Oriental culture feeling, the ghosts in it tend to suffer from the same pain day after day, because they have wills unaccomplished, they all stick to them, so they cannot escape and get relieved from these unfinished wills. In The Sixth Sense, Cole Sear think they do not know they themselves already died, they cannot see each other, they can only see what they desire to meet.

As for me, there are many thoughts after watching the two movies. In The Eye, the words Ying Ying said to Mun, “This world is beautiful” is the base of the movie. No matter whether humans or ghosts we are, we have to live, the earth still moves without anyone. In my point of view, there are also many ghosts in our real society, no more than they just wear human beings’ surface. In this country or under this extreme system, people who want to take off must avoid anything about humanness. Actually, people in this country have no right to express ourselves freely especially opinions against people in office. Something really common in other countries seem ridiculous and impossible here like believing in religion. For this, you can imagine how come there are so many conflicts in Tibet and so many Tibetans kill themselves, the truth is badly contorted by them who seem so justicial. Faith is rubbish or garbage in this country. Communism with Chinese character is strongly against and ruin religion. I’m just a common university student, I have little influence. But I really hope our nation can be normal, just a normal society, not a strong country seemingly. Luckily, I will go to the U.S. after graduation, I hope my nation can be a normal nation. Thank you for your patience for such long. I have said too much, they’re just some real thoughts from me, I believe what I’ve said can stand for tens of millions of Chinese who know the truth.

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Misconceptions about China

This follows neatly after my last post about how China was badly portrayed in The Mummy 3, and we’re also just over the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, which was on July 1st. Anyway, in this post I’m going to go along with the powers that be, while conceptualizing a future post that really doesn’t.

Last week, I finally got MSN to hook up with Facebook with the help of some friends, and so I was able to talk to people on Facebook without using a VPN. The first person who messaged me on Facebook chat was my MA supervisor. He had just returned to Canada from a research leave in Taiwan, and one thing he said in our conversation is that the West still holds the illusion that it’s superior to the East. I commented that even if the West admits that they cannot be said to be more technologically superior anymore, they still believe that they are morally superior. “Another illusion,” my supervisor said. He noticed that much of the interaction in Asia goes on with complete disregard for what the West says and does.

It’s important to me that the world doesn’t view China as the incarnation of pure evil. As a Chinese-Canadian who has lived in some very remote corners of the world (a suburb in Galway, Ireland, for example), I’ve noticed how Chinese immigrants were treated as second-class citizens based on the view the media has crafted about China. At first it was that China is an extremely undeveloped country. No one in Ireland in 1995 believed that China had highways or buildings over 3 floors high, and people a school probably thought of me as a refugee. I remember being very puzzled as one boy firmly declared to me that China must not exist because he hasn’t heard of it. Then, as China became more powerful and developed, the conception was that yes, China is developed now, but it’s going in a wrong way. It’s a threat that needs to be tamed. Primarily it’s based on a notion of moral superiority.

How Chinese immigrants are treated aside, another reason that the image of China matters to me is that it’s an alternative in a world where real alternatives are disappearing all the time to be replaced with pseudoindividuality. Admittedly, China is managed with a completely different philosophy and setup than in the West. However, difference does not entail a division of good and evil. I must emphasize that I have not been brainwashed and I can clearly see China’s shortcomings, however most media ends up building an extremely negative image of tyranny and poisonous food. If everyone subscribes to this image it would influence them to reject positive differences as negative ones.

There are 2 ways to comprehensively build a positive image of a subject. One is to contradict the negative things said about it, and the other is to say that yes, those negative things exist, but there are other positive ones to balance things out. In this post, I’m doing the former. Below are some points I have noticed in China that contradict things I’ve heard in North America.

1) There is no recycling, and more generally, Chinese people don’t care about the environment at all.

While I was living with my grandmother in Beijing, you couldn’t tell the Recycling Bin apart from the Garbage Bin apart because garbage had completely caked both, and for someone who was willing to dig through my housemates’ garbage to short out recyclables, I was disgusted. However, there actually is recycling here – people didn’t use the Recycling Bin because they had their own system. In China, one would see many men and women on tricycles loaded with styrofoam and cardboard. That’s the recycling force.

If you have things you want to recycle, just find one of these people. There are usually a couple hanging around each apartment complex and are easy to find. Tell them you have stuff to give them and take them to your apartment. They will usually bring a scale with them to weight the recyclables you have, and pay you a small amount for taking them off your hands. Everything that I could recycle in Canada I found that I could also recycle here.

The objection is that it’s not centralized, however centralized recycling doesn’t necessarily encourage recycling. I had friends who still threw their bottles into the garbage in Canada, and once the bag is tied and the garbage truck leaves, they’ll still end up in a landfill. In some ways, the system in China where a monetary reward is always offered for recyclables could encourage recycling more. Not being centralized just means that it’s harder to earn a living if you’re one of those men and women on tricycles, but that has nothing to do with how much recycling is done.

As for the environment in general, Chinese tech companies are creating energy-efficient air conditioners just like Western companies are, and in Nanning, the city I’m staying in now, made a rule that no one can lower the temperature of their air conditioners below 26 degrees Celsius or they would have their power cut off. This isn’t an idle threat, either; a couple of weeks ago the city experienced mass power outages because the power grid was overloaded.

For an interesting movie on the same topic, there is a movie whose name translates to How Yukong Moved the Mountains – but not the documentary about the cultural revolution under the same name. Yu Gong Yi Shan (How Yukong Moved the Mountains)is a 2007 mockumentary about Shuang Liang Li, a factory worker who devised a plan to remove a slag pile of 10, 000, 000m^3 over ten years to make his hometown living environment healthy and safe. It’s quite inspiring. You could say that this is propaganda to make other countries believe that China is doing something about its nasty environmental record, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t influence its Chinese audience to be more conscientious.

The main point is not to judge other nations just on surface discrepancies and not to measure them with the same ruler and apply the same system. When I first got here, I was unhappy that many manufactured products, such as cookies and toilet paper, would be individually wrapped while sold in a large package. My friends in Canada have also joked that imported junk food from China, while tasty, isn’t very environmentally friendly – it seemed that China has traded off environment for convenience. However, I realized that there are other factors as well. Compared to developed countries, a greater percentage of Chinese people live in very poor conditions, such as a shack beside train tracks. There’s no humidity regulation and of course rodents and insects are all around. If food isn’t individually wrapped in a larger package then it would be inedible within a day or two, and similarly in a monsoon season type of weather toilet paper would be completely mushy in a couple of days.

2) The government completely disregards its ethnic minorities.

Especially after what happened in Tibet before the Olympics, everyone in the world frowns even more on China’s human rights and how they treat ethnic minorities. China is in a very interesting position for having 55 groups of ethnic minorities in addition to the most widespread Han majority. Places like North America and Australia probably pat themselves on the back for having Native reserves and programs while lambasting China for wiping them out.

The situation in Tibet was awful, and the Dalai Llama was indeed wronged when the Communists “liberated” Tibet, however it doesn’t necessarily mean that every minority is oppressed. Currently I’m living in Guangxi, west of the better-known Guangdong (Canton). In this province, the largest group of ethnic minorities is the Zhuang group, and this province is called the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. How much autonomy this place has is doubtful, but I heard that a certain level of government (my Chinese isn’t good so I didn’t catch which one) is required to have a certain percent of members of the Zhuang minority on board. Of course, that could just be in name only, and you can say that the rest of the members pick one they think is more in line with their own views, but certainly North America and Australia has a long way to go before it gets even here.

Additionally, art- and media-wise, ethnic minorities are always included in things like New Years Gala shows. On the central CCTV channels, there’s a channel specifically devoted to music, and every evening there’s a program where musicians from ethnic minorities are invited to perform. Of course, this can be token multiculturalism, but North America has definitely applauded itself for doing just these things. And as a classmate has said, one can argue about the theoretical falseness of such things all day, but people who participate in these activities often still feel empowered.

The most important factor to support that China supports its ethnic minorities is that they are exempt from the one-child policy. This policy has also drawn a lot of ire, because most people in the West believe that it’s not the government’s business how many children a family wants to have. This kind of emphasis on the individual pursuit of happiness overriding the needs of a community is perhaps not really something to be proud of, but that’s not the topic so I won’t get into it. Anyway, middle and upper class members of the Han majority nation can only have one child, but poor peasant families and ethnic minorities can have more children if they wish. Compare this with eugenics in America.

That said, I wish the education system took ethnic minorities’ cultures more into account. A friend who is doing policy recently wrote her MA thesis about education in China and said that due to the standardized curriculum, ethnic minorities’ points of view are mostly left out. In addition, schools don’t respect the customs of ethnic minorities, for example having male teachers for Muslim girls when their families would rather they have female teachers.

3) It is impossible to find wholesome food.

This scare took place after the scandal about Sanlu Milk Company putting too much melamine into milk and causing a huge number of babies to get sick. In the time that I was in China, I heard more like stories about watermelons with dangerous growth hormones and sticky rice wrapped with leaves with unsafe colouring and so forth. This is indeed a problem with packaged food. However, unpackaged food is another story.

Agriculture in China is on a different system than in more developed countries. Things like vegetables and fruits are grown by small-scaled farmers, like an extended family. This might seem “primitive,” but this is the standard that the West wants to return to. for example, Vancouver in Canada just passed a law that allows people in single residences to keep up to two chickens in their back yard.

Most people don’t go to supermarkets in China – they are extremely empty considering the population density. Most people go to farmer’s markets, and you can find a farmer’s market almost every 15 blocks or so. Because these small-scale farmers have to come daily to this market, it means that they don’t live far away and hence it’s very easy to live by the 100-mile diet in China. It also means that what you’re eating is in sync with natural cycles, something which naturalists complain about not having, when you can have bananas in the dead of winter. Bittermelon, this cucumber-like gourd popular in China, was conspicuously absent during the winter here. Because I’m used to a diet where i can find anything shipped from anywhere, I tried to find bittermelon among the 10 or so stalls in the local farmer’s market in February. The farmers looked at me like I was insane. Now it’s summer and it is selling for 1 yuan/500 g, while this leafy vegetable that I enjoyed in March is gone. And it’s perfectly fine.

4) The entire country is materialistic and wasteful.

With burgeoning consumer culture, this is true of most people, especially young people. This point is largely a bitter idea older Chinese immigrants (including me) have about how the emphasis on thrift and basic living from their youth (childhood) is gone now. I have seen my Chinese housemates throw away whole meals because they don’t like the taste and take a taxi to campus, which would have been a 15-minute walk.

However, this isn’t the case with everyone. In China, most people are less materialistic than their Western counterparts – by counterparts I mean people of the same socioeconomic background in the West. For example, there are small stalls by the road where you can get your shoes stitched for a few RMB if something breaks, such as the thing between the toes on flipflops getting pulled out of the base. Most people in the West would just throw away their flipflops and buy a new one, but I had to line up to get mine fixed. There are also people who would sharpen scissors if they get dull or adjust the fit of your clothes if you find that they no longer fit you. Partly the reason that this is possible is due to the huge income gap – the people who repair shoes and sharpen scissors and sew clothes don’t earn much and hence their services are affordable to most other people, whereas in North America if you go to the tailors to re-sew your clothes you might as well buy a new one. However, the only reason that North Americans can afford to buy a new one is that the new one is probably made in a country where people earn a lot less than they do, so the income gap is still there, it’s just that they can’t see it.

5) Everyone is brainwashed by the Communist Party and have no mind of their own.

This is probably the least true of everything on this list. This might have been true 20 years ago. I remember my mother refusing to watch the movie Seven Years in Tibet because she believed it to be counter-propaganda (Is it true that Brad Pitt is not allowed to set foot in China because of it?), but she’s come around now. Anyway, most people with half a brain know that China is on the road to hell and really don’t believe anything the news says about growth and development and people living better lives.

I had a few friends over a month or so ago and they began to heatedly discuss things like the gap in income, the poor standard of living for peasants and migrant workers, corruption, the Chinese education system, homophobia. Some of my co-workers at the college also discuss similar things in the staff room and then say “what we just said doesn’t leave this room” before leaving. Yesterday was the singing competition for staff in my college to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party, and I ran into one of my students and she was surprised I was there. I told her that it’s intriguing to me because the anniversary of political parties aren’t ever publically celebrate in North America, and she said, rather matter-of-factly, “Well, it’s not like we want to celebrate it .” Lastly, a couple of months ago, I set a writing topic about arguing whether or not students should join the Party, and a large number of students professed in their homework that it’s a waste of time. Most of the time Chinese people can’t publicize their views (yet), but independent thought is a huge improvement.

For a more policy-oriented and more academic article, take a look at “5 Myths About the Chinese Communist Party.”

Chinese Neologisms

(If you just want to go to the Neologisms and skip the theoretical background, go to II.)

I. Thoughts on Chinese and English differences

As I’m beginning to settle into my English teaching job here in China, I’m seeing more and more differences between Chinese and English. For example, in Chinese you can write a sentence with 4 or 5 commas separating the phrases and it would be grammatically correct, as long as all the phrases are about the same subject (My TESOL practicum supervisor told me that this is correct in Spanish as well). In English you can’t do this, and between phrases you often need conjunctions. For example, in the last sentence I have to use “and” before “between,” otherwise the sentence just sounds wrong.

But in this post, the focus is something smaller than a sentence, which is words. I started learning English when I was 7 years old, and for several years I always thought that the equivalent to the English “word” was the Chinese term for “character,” “字” (zi). But then I found out that individual characters were called “characters” and not “words,” and a combination of characters (usually 2 or 3), which in Chinese is “词” (ci), was called a “word.” In this system, English letters would be equivalent to Chinese radicals, or the stroke combinations that make up a character. This is also where the name of this blog come from – compounds of radicals make characters.

This is a really fundamental difference between Chinese and English, that compared to Chinese, English lacks a linguistic level of the character. In Chinese, characters mean something individually but mean different things depending on which other characters they form words with. In English, if you want to say a female bovine animal, you have a new word, “cow.” If you want to say a male bovine creature, you say “bull.” By contrast, in Chinese there are no new words for “cow” and “bull”; you simply say “female bovine” (母牛) and “male bovine,” (公牛) with two characters in the name each. The only cases that comes readily to mind where it’s opposite, ie. where there’s 2 words in English where there’s one character in Chinese, is in the labels for family members and for cooking (how stereotypical…). If you want to say “younger sister,” all you would have to say in Chinese is “妹,” and there is “姨” for an aunt on your mother’s side and “婶” for an aunt on your father’s side. Similarly, in cooking, pan-fry, stir-fry, and deep-fry all have one character each to express them, which are 煎 (jian), 炒 (chao), and 炸 (zha). There’s also a character, “爆” (bao), which the textbook I’m using for speaking class tells me means “quick-fry,” though I have to admit I’ve never heard “quick-fry” before. Anyway, this would be the character pronounced “pao” in “kung-pao chicken.” Other than these two categories, I think in many cases it takes more than one character in Chinese to express one word in English rather than the other way around.

(long aside: I just had a thought last night that this enables the Chinese language not to have a gender hierarchy, for example in English sometimes the word “man” stands in for all of humanity, whereas in Chinese it would be “person,” “male person,” and “female person,” and the combination “male person” would rarely stand for everyone. I’m sure people like Julia Kristeva have mined this language difference and its implications for gender already. But this also means that cognitively Chinese people might think differently. If you have “cow” and “bull” and each is a word on its own, it’s not immediately obvious from the word that they belong to a larger category “bovine.” However, if all you have is “female bovine” and “male bovine,” then you would always be reminded of the category that they belong to. Perhaps what cross-cultural social psychologists have noticed, that Asians tend to think more holistically, comes partly from such language differences. As a side note of a side note, this makes it really hard for me to read Axis Powers Hetalia fan works in Chinese, because in common Chinese the name of countries rarely stand alone, like “France” and “America,” but they would be “Fa-Country” and “Mei(beautiful)-country” respectively. Hence, when a Hetalia character in English says “I am France,” it’s possible to forget for a moment that France is a country and just believe that the person is called France. Chinese never lets you forget that the person is in fact a country. When the fan work gets raunchy I really, really just want to forget that we’re talking about countries. Oh the implications.)

Anyway, so this way of combining different characters makes Chinese exceptionally rich in shades of meaning. Each character has its own meaning, and if you say XY the meaning can be different from if you say XZ, where X gives a basic meaning and Y or Z gives a different twist to it. For example, “精神” (jingshen) can mean “vivacious” or sometimes a person’s psychology, but “神经” (shenjing) means nerves and neurons, where “神” by itself actually means divine or magical (“神经” literally means “magical/divine meridians,” but it’s usually not understood literally). So while in Chinese there might be fewer characters, there are tons of character combinations, but English has few combinations in comparison while having a lot of individual words. Of course, there are prefixes and suffixes that change the meaning for the root word, but they are limited because the root word still bears most of the meaning of the word, whereas in Chinese in a combination both words might carry similar weight of meaning and combining with a different word can radically change its meaning. Also, the words in English that have a root plus affixes are most likely from French and are not really “English.” In English there are concatenations too, like the expression “get up” cannot be explained with either “get” or “up” individually. Looking at the New Words and Slang tab of Merriam-Webster online, there are such words as “frenemy,” and of course more established words like “Internet,” “blackmail,” etc.

But even if these words exist, comparatively single-word expressions overwhelmingly outnumber them in English. I believe that because English tends not to use combinations, combinations seem a bit strange and are slow to become official words. (Not all European languages are like this – for example, there are insanely long words in German like “vergangenheitsbewaeltigung.”) But because Chinese has always operated by pulling characters together and changing their meaning, it’s easier for new concatenations to take hold in Chinese. Finally, the actually neologisms in Chinese…

II. Neologisms
(all phonetics are given in pinyin for Mandarin pronunciations, without tones)

给力 (geili): literally, “give power.” This has mostly taken the place of the older expression “加油,” which literally means “add gas” (as in add gas to a car and make it run faster). 加油 is used as an expression of encouragement, but as a friend explained it, gas is so expensive that no one can afford to give anyone else gas. Hence, just give power in its raw form. “给力” is also used in more contexts, for example a commercial for some sort of slow cooker has a middle-aged woman saying that the cooker is 给力.Or, as my friend explains it, if you see a piece of news or an incident that really amazes you (in either a good or bad way), you can say it is very 给力. Because English is so popular in China (you have to take an English exam to graduate from university), Chinglish is also very popular. My friend explains that there’s a word floating around that is an English conjugation of this expression, which is “geilivable.” To keep going in this vein, we might end up with more conjugations like “ungelievable” and “geilivability,” as in “the geilievability factor of X incident ranks 10 on a scale from 0 to 10.”

山赛 (shansai): literally, “mountain competition.” This expression comes from a story about criminals hiding in a mountain, outside the law, and it’s come to mean “knockoffs,” which are outlaw products. I’ll probably write a post later on about these specifically.

你妹 (nimei): literally “your (younger sister).” This is usually used with the character for “to look at,” which is “看,” so the expression is “看你妹,” which translates to “What are you looking at?” I have no idea how this went from younger sisters to this.

In China there’s a website called Baidu, which is the equivalent of Google. It also has a section where you can ask questions and people will answer then, like in Yahoo Answers. One question asking for a clarification of “你妹” got a long hack answer about how your sister isn’t the same as my sister because of genetics and so forth.

雷 (lei): literally “thunder.” This expression is for anything that disturbs you a little and makes you go “wtf?!” For example, a funny but bad ethnic joke. Often this is used with the character for person, so it’s the adjective “雷人,” which means the joke would often make people go “wtf.”

2B (erbi): this is an insult and an amalgamation of two other insults: “250” and “傻逼” (shabi). The first one, 250, is pronounced “erbaiwu,” a shortened form of the accurate pronunciation for the actual number. Both of these terms mean varying types of stupid, and I’m not too clear on exactly how they’re different yet. I think 250 means someone is immature and irresponsible and thinks about things in an illogical way, whereas “傻逼” just means sort of dull or slow. So I guess 2B means someone who’s both slow on the uptake but then acts out and does stupid things as well? Not sure.

海带 (haida), 海藻(haizao): literally “seaweed” and “algae.” The origin of these 2 terms is another term, “海归” (haigui), where the first character means “ocean” or “sea” and the second means “return.” This term denotes Chinese people who leave China to get a better education and then come back to China to work. China has tended to hold these people in high esteem, because usually they have to be very hard-working and intelligent, and they usually get national fellowships to study abroad after competing with millions of people. So, in general, they find great work positions in China. In this term, a looser translation is “return from across the ocean.” However, the character for “return” is pronounced exactly like “龟,” which means turtle, and so without an appropriate context “海归” can sound like “sea turtle.”

Hence, new terms for people who come back to China further elaborate on the theme of the ocean life. “待,” which sounds the same as “带” but with a different tone, means to stay or wait; so, 海带 refers to people who go back to China but stay at home instead of work. Because more and more people are leaving China for their education, it isn’t a special status anymore, and people often can’t find jobs when they go back. In 海藻, “藻” also has the same pronunciation as another character, “糟,” which means “terrible” or “to ruin.” There are also people who leave China not because they work hard, but because their families are rich enough to support them. Often they just work barely hard enough to get a degree. These people are often looked down upon.

囧 (jiong): this character is an archaic character meaning “bright” or “shining” (archaic as in…the word “hap” in English or something. We only have “happen” in common use nowadays, though “hap” was used a little more than a century ago). Though now it’s not used as the original character – it’s used as an emoticon, an equivalent to “D=” It ranges from expressing “damn” to “awww”.

The page for this on Baidu has really nice pictures showing different drawings of this character to be more anthropomorphic. It also shows pictorial conjugations (I want to copyright the term “pictorial conjugations”!) by combining this character or character that look like with the expression “orz” or “OTL” (which looks like a person on their hands and knees, head being the O to the left) This combination is an emoticon for the humblest apology, which is kowtowing. Suppose you insulted someone on a forum and then found out it was actually your favourite singer in disguise, I guess you would use a combination of the two.

There’s a huge list of popular terms on Baidu. it’s a little outdated (2007) but I’m sure some of these terms are still in circulation.

III. New Chinese Words Transliterated From English
(“translation” is keeping the meaning in another language, “transliteration” is keeping the sound of the word).

Chinese is different from English in another interesting way, in the relationship between a sound of a character or word and its meaning. People who grew up speaking English might think that Chinese and Japanese accents sound really exaggerated and worse than other accents, and in a way it might be true, because in Chinese and Japanese the language has fewer sound. In another words, the language doesn’t require you to twist the components of your mouth and throat in as many different ways. So, if you learn Chinese or Japanese first, your tongue probably settles into a kind of narrow habit, and it’s really hard to do thinks like distinguish between “r” and “l.” In Chinese every character has an average of 10 homophones (even taking into account different tones), whereas in English only a very small fraction of words have homophones (see / sea). Sometimes this can be confusing, for example “制癌” and “治癌” are both pronounced “zhì’ái” (tones 4, 2), but the former means “cause/produces cancer” and the second one means “cures cancer,” but most of the time the context of the expression gives you clues about which character it is. This means that the meaning of the characters in Chinese come from how they are written and not how they sound. For example, if you look at the third paragraph in the first section, 3 out of 4 of the characters for various kinds of frying have the same radical on the left, and this radical written larger is the character for “fire.” So, even if you don’t know how to pronounce the character, you would know from the “fire” radical that the character has something to do with fire, and given the context of the sentence, you would probably guess it’s something to do with cooking. And almost every Chinese character has a meaning, which means that every Chinese sound has a meaning, unlike in English. For example, you can pronounce a random string of syllables like “staflenich” based on your understanding of how the 26 letters are pronounced, but this has no meaning. You wouldn’t even begin to think about what it means. But in Chinese, if you see a combination of a few characters, most likely it has a meaning, even if it’s not an actual Chinese word.

This also means that when things get transliterated from English, there are many characters to choose from to express one syllable of English sound, and they all have different meanings. So, the practice is usually to choose characters which have both a similar sound and nice meanings. This makes things very different from English, because in most English names, the meaning behind them are not obvious (though this is partly because many English names aren’t actually English, but maybe Hebrew or German or whatever). What does “McDonald’s” mean? It means “belong to McDonald.” If you’ve read or watched Shakespeare’s Macbeth you might know that “MacX” means “the son of X,” so ok, so the fast food chain belongs to someone who many generations ago was the son of someone named Donald. Behindthename.com says that “Donald” comes from the Gaelic name “Domhnall,” which means “ruler of the world.” Well, seeing how far McDonald’s has spread, that meaning really fits. But unless your name is Donald and/or you’ve looked up what it means, then it’s not obvious what “McDonald’s” means. But in Chinese, the transliteration is “麦当劳” (mai’danglao), which sounds inelegant, but because each character has a meaning, the meaning of the name is immediately obvious. It literally means “grains as effort,” or more loosely, an advertisement that the food at McDonald’s will give you energy. The following are more words transliterated from English but with their own connotations:

Hacker: 黑客 (hei’ke), literally “black guest.” This Chinese term makes hackers seem more like digital ninjas. It also spawned a whole spectrum of other coloured guests like red, blue, white, and grey (I kid you not!) Red hackers are patriots who use their skills to protect national networks. White ones are anti-hackers that are employed to protect company networks and so on, and grey ones are the worst of all and cause trouble for everyone. And I don’t quite understand blue ones yet. Baidu says that blue ones “believe in freedom” and work independently, rather than being employed, to “keep peace on the net.” This is all so mindboggling.

Blog: 博客 (bo’ke), where “博” means “rich” or “expansive.” It’s commonly used with “士” (shi), which , to denote the Ph.D. degree. This makes blogs sound a lot more learned.

Fans (as in “we are fans of X singer”): 粉丝 (fen’si), literally “vermicelli rice noodle.” And in Chinese it’s always pronounced like the plural even when talking about one person. The first thing that comes to mind by associating people with noodles is that the people are spineless. It seems that this makes the term slightly derogatory, but maybe it’s just my personal perspective. Apparently different fan clubs will name themselves differently, sometimes by different ways to cook rice vermicelli noodles, like cold vermicelli rice noodles. It’s like if “pasta” was the collective term for fans in English, and fans of Alfred Hitchcock movies would call themselves “fettuccini alfredos” or something.

Talent: 达人 (da’ren), literally “achievement person.” This is used slightly differently from the English word, which is used more as a noun to talk about the field that someone is good at, as in “X has a lot of talent.” In Chinese, because of the character for “person,” it usually means a person who is good at something instead of the actual thing, as in “X is a talent at…” In English this also works, but it’s not used as much. The meaning of the Chinese doesn’t differ so much from the English, but this is used in a lot more places than in English. In English, “talent” is used to talk about an inborn ability, usually in some kind of humanities or arts subject, like languages or music. But in Chinese it’s used to mean an ability at a variety of things, eg “You can be a talent at saving money” or “we are talents of happiness.”

“Out” and “high”: These haven’t been transliterated, but often printed in English. “Out” as in someone being “out” of a game, used in more situations than in games, and usually it’s used intransitively, as in it’s not explicitly stated what the person would be out of. A Heinz radio commercial: “You’re going to be ‘out’ if you don’t come to X event this weekend.” There’s also “outman,” meaning someone who is “out,” though this is often written in the characters “奥特曼” (aoteman), which is also the Chinese name for the Japanese Ultraman franchise. And “high” is sometimes translated rather than transliterated, into the character for “high” or “tall,” “高” (gao). Since as a whole Chinese people do drugs less than Westerners, it’s used mostly for a state of rowdy drunkenness or extreme excitement.

IV. For English words of Chinese origin, here’s the wikipedia article
Apparently the Chinese slang for a bachelor, “光棍” (bare stick / bare branch) has been used in The Economist. Geilievable!

Criminal Performances

(Anyway, I started this post in November and it’s now January. At first I was too busy with a TESOL course and the practicum to finish writing it, and also because after I graduated from my MA program and started taking the TESOL course, I found that I was unable to write academic paragraphs. And then I went to China, where I’m staying currently, and wordpress seems to be partially blocked by the Great Firewall. My friend Michelle got me over the wall with vtunnel. I’ve sort of lost my thoughts on this…so forgive the rough and aimless post. But hey! head over to http://ideogrammatica.wordpress.com to read about how I was accused of robbing someone on the street last week and dragged to the police station.)

This post is a bit late after the fact, but around Hallowe’en, there were 2 rather interesting (and disturbing) incidents in Canada where people crossed the line in terms of how they disguised themselves. One was at a Hallowe’en party at Royal Canadian Legion branch 103, where two men dressed up as KKK members and led a White friend, who was dressed up as a slave in blackface, by a rope. The other was the young Chinese man who got onto an Air Canada flight disguised as an elderly Caucasian man. The latter of course raised a lot of alarms, and the young man is being detained, and former was also deemed alarming and branch 103 was shut down.

Last Hallowe’en I just briefly posted about how students in the English department at McMaster handled Hallowe’en, and my friend Michelle noted in the comments that Hallowe’en is a time when we get to subvert constructions of identity (I feel that she does this daily, but that’s beyond the point). Often people don’t exploit Hallowe’en to its full potential, choosing instead to disguise oneself as fairly conventional creatures of darkness, available at your local Shopper’s Drug Mart. I hesitate to applaud either of this year’s Hallowe’en incidents, but they certainly subverted racial identity in historical and international ways.

When I first heard about the KKK + blackface incident, I asked the person who told me whether those costumes were meant to be ironic, and she told me it wasn’t. The Globe and Mail features an article where Crowley, one of the men dressed in a KKK costume, said that incidents of the KKK lynching African Americans “has been gone for years and years and years…That’s so past-tense.” Interviewees from Campbellford, ON say that there’s no overt racism in their community, and so the best conclusion would be that the KKK and blackface costumes weren’t ironic, but neither were they malicious. The problem seems to be that people (White people) are not really educated about the significance of the signs of racism and the impact they could still have.

However, Crowley’s rather dismissive attitude is what bothers me. Other than sounding like a ditz, which I think is really hard to pull off in print, by saying that lynching is “so past-tense” Crowley is suggesting that his attitude is the norm, and people who protested need to get with the times. The Globe and Mail article also states that the man in charge of the Hallowe’en event “felt that it was their right to wear these costumes under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada.” Crowley fell back on some sort of common sense norm, and the event organizer fell back on a legal norm. Neither is satisfactory. Crowley was essentially trying to shrug off blame by saying that it was excessive sensitivity on the part of others that made his costume a national issue, when he should really have owned up immediately. The way that the man in charge of the event appealed to the Charter was rather ironic: the re-enactment of the KKK and an African American slave embodied the lack of rights and freedoms that racialized human beings have had to put up with, and he was trying to defend White people doing this re-enactment by appealing to those very rights. Hmm.

Then there’s the 20-something Chinese man dressed up as an old Caucasian man to get past airport security. Unlike the KKK + blackface incident, in this case a member of a less privileged ethnicity dressed up as a member of a more privileged ethnicity (Asian > Caucasian rather than Caucasian > African American). The privilege of Caucasians in this case is obvious – as an elderly Caucasian man, he was let on the flight without proper ID. If he tried to do the same thing while not in disguise, he would have to have the right ID, and moreover the airport staff might have paid special attention to him because of his ID. And since he was an Asian refugee, this case was reported with an air of humour in the press, the pictures of him and his disguise like ads for a freak show. I’d hate to see how it would have been if he was from the Middle East.

Another difference is that the young man from Asia being detained and his case is an international security issue, whereas the men in Campbellford only had the legion shut down and they could still go about the other avenues of their lives. Why is the racist, or at least ignorant, attitude of many within a country considered less dangerous than a young man who wants a better life in another country…?

The Benefits of Having Friends Who Aren’t Academics

Another new year, back in the Ivory Tower. Though being in English + Cultural Studies and Critical Theory, the department seems to be ecstatically mounting new bricks at the same time as decomposing them (is ivory compostable? shrug). We have professors who write about “White Civility” and Freudian psychoanalysis, but also professors who write about Glee and Xbox games. Now I just need to figure out whether the Scifi course I’m taking actually requires me to to and buy an Xbox (Try justifying that on a scholarship application).

The first term of my MA has thrown me into a plastic ball pool (whatever those things are called) of terminology. I’ve never picked up vocabulary very quickly, and studying for the GRE last year was a nightmare, but I do like to use expressions like “postlapsarian” and “watershed moment in colonialism” just to shore up my fragile academic ego. We had been warned at the start of our theses, almost polemic-style, not to treat humanities research as a retreat into an ivory corner, but sometimes it’s difficult not to feel superior to people who spell “wasted” as “waisted.” However, I am reminded increasingly in the course I am TAing, Consumer Culture, that university education itself is a consumer activity. Students are both the products and the consumers of education – paying vast amounts to be able to contribute meaningfully to society (whatever that means), using niche-market coins in the forms of insider terminology in academic exchange, not to mention current academic ideology. For example, although university is touted as a place for free thought, a student criticizing Muslim women’s groups for only socializing and not affecting any social change, or a student genuinely believing in some form of eugenics, would be put on the spot in tutorial discussions and pointed at.

Sometimes I feel like a sheep in university, although a highly paid and highly paying one. Therefore it is good to talk to people who haven’t been fed concepts like globalization inducing inequity or the evils of consumerism. The friend that I have urged to finish his undergrad after 5 years of part-timing told me quite frankly on MSN that he thought the entire concept of globalization as a new and dangerous phenomenon is bullshit, because every civilization that has any foothold in history has had a natural tendency to expand its borders. While I gave half-hearted defenses from an increasingly tenuous liberal arts (read: self-righteous) base, I did start to think about what he was saying. Not that I was converted with regards to globalization, but rather I started thinking more critically about the academic truths I was taking for granted. Then I had a discussion with my mother about the unification of ancient China, which Chinese people generally take as a great step to the founding of the nation, involving streamlining previous nation states’ policies and introducing a unified Chinese language. I accepted this as a good thing before, yet also schizophrenically denouncing globalization at the same time. Until the said MSN conversation. Which reminded me that at the beginning of the term, I was criticizing Asian North Americans for not actively engaging in social change but most people in the class focussed more on how they were oppressed by the dominant culture, and I didn’t quite know what to do with this disjunction.

Not that I am not criticizing these concepts – I am merely criticizing the environs of their dissemination. Ultimately academia is an aggregate of remarkeably like-minded people, if you think about it. Although the population is getting diverse, those who go into university are often more socioeconomically successful and have been put through a similar recipe of public school education. Academia is elitist – and two of the most intelligent people I know have rejected at some point in their teenage years the ambition of higher learning for that very reason. Ethnically diverse voices, especially in the humanities, are often self-voluntarily absent because of problems with language and questions of survival. And it seems that there are so many faculties and departments in post-secondary, yet so few academics make it their profession to examine the structural deficiencies of the tower they are in. I am happy to have worked with a professor in Education during the summer who solicits book reviews from parents instead of fellow professors, and the said Scifi course involving Xboxes (did I ever mention that the professor teaching it supervised a thesis on Evangelion?). So yes, make the ivory tower a lighthouse.

As an ending note, the perils of not using the academic terminology in exchange results in fun situations. Out of my discussions with less academically conforming individuals, I can’t quite take “playing cards” and “dropping plates” to denote playing cards and dropping plates but euphemisms for sexual intercourse; I muttered about notation for slash fiction in a discussion about notation for “Asian / American” vs “Asian-American”; describing something as “third-impactful” elicited no responses and telling my supervisor that the due date for the thesis outline and complete bibliography was a “dummy plug” made him somewhat confused.

part of the ether

i think to quote Jenkins, media prof @ MIT, the internet allows everyone to be an author, artist, or performer. there is less and less expertise attached to physical publishing and more and more prestige accorded to grassroots and individual efforts. the ghost is no longer in the machine, because the ghost can be displayed in any machine. decentralization, exploded signifier and signified, the fifth dimension. I give my ghost to the ether.