Aloha from Hawaii!

Greetings from tropical paradise. The news stands in Honolulu don’t sell China Daily — big surprise — so a kind reader has emailed to let me know my article published on Friday. Here is the link and text.

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2009-12/25/content_9228150.htm

Chinese and proud

For 20 years, I lived in Anglophone countries as “Zhai Qi” or “Qi Zhai”. I love the simplicity of my two-syllable name, with its alphabetic gaggle, because it identifies me as uniquely Chinese. However, on some occasions – like during client meetings in Ohio – I did feel things would have been a lot easier if I had an English moniker.

Yet, “Mary” or “Samantha” never felt right, so I stuck with the only name I know. At times, it was a struggle: “Q-I, like IQ spelled backwards.” “No, my parents didn’t name me ‘seven’, ‘taichi’, or ‘gas.’ There are a lot of homonyms in Chinese.”

Proud of being a Chinese

“Think of the ‘Zh’ as a ‘J’.”

But I struggled along, putting up with people calling me “Kwee”, “Key”, “Kai”, “Xhai” by mistake. I was relieved to come back to Beijing. Finally, my name would not give me any more trouble.

I was wrong. Every week that I have been back someone has asked me to wisely consider giving myself an English name. Really? What’s going on here?

I pondered my predicament and can only explain it as some kind of inferiority complex that we Chinese can’t seem to shake. While Western media may report on fierce displays of nationalism in China, here on the ground I feel an overwhelming Chinese admiration for all things foreign.

My Chinese name and I first ran into “reverse discrimination” at an English learning center, where I was hoping to tutor students as a meaningful way to spend my break from corporate life. After examining copies of my diplomas from a top American university, listening to my Californian accent, and verifying my most recent employment at a global investment bank, the staffer smilingly told me, “Everything looks great! Just let me know what English name you decide on and we can start assigning you students.”

Seeing my surprise, she explained, “No Chinese parent would pay for their child to take English lessons from a girl named ‘Qi.'”

Proud of being a Chinese

After I left the center, I started noticing this Chinese self-disdain everywhere. In boutiques, salesgirls unabashedly praised me as “yangqi” (literally “Western aura”) when I tried on apparel. Every sweater I fingered was proclaimed to be a Korean import, a Japanese design, or an exclusive export on its way to Scandinavia.

Maybe salespeople are just desperate for a buck. I shouldn’t hold them responsible for starting the national obsession with foreignness. Yet, I felt the same attitude in other contexts. As I started meeting people, they would prematurely conclude that I: 1) was born overseas and 2) have long converted my Chinese passport to a “better” one.

I patiently explain that I’m Chinese, from the modest outskirts of Harbin, still proudly carry my crimson passport, and speak English because I lived overseas. Inside, I’m dying to shout in exasperation, “Let’s have some pride in ourselves, people! Is being Chinese that bad?”

For all our faulty manufacturing and other imperfections, there are still plenty of good reasons to be proud of being Chinese. Please don’t make me start with, “We have a five thousand year tradition of”

On a recent trip to Japan, I saw an entirely different mentality. There, people buy domestic goods and “imported” is not a good thing. The Japanese keep their best ideas at home, exporting only the stuff that isn’t up to par (case in point, the VCD).

We don’t necessarily need a superiority complex, but we could certainly embrace “Made in China” with a little more pride, starting with our own names.

My Christmas column

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2009-12/22/content_9210974.htm

Beijing is getting into the Christmas spirit. Restaurants, malls, and upscale residences are decked with boughs of paper holly. Window panes all around are scribbled over with frosty, misspelled cheer (“Merry Chrismas!”). Hotels lend their lobbies to adorable choir children and their adoring parents for holiday carols. And eager boyfriends in the city are busily making Christmas Eve plans. At least they should be.

Last week, a reader posted this dicey query on my blog:

Xmas is Chinese Valentines

“My ABC (American-born-Chinese) boyfriend’s idea of a fun Christmas Eve is going to kungfu practice and then meeting up with me at a dumpling joint nearby. When I teasingly protested to this plan, he simply raved that these dumplings come in ‘five amazing flavors.’ What should I do? I don’t want to be demanding, but Wing Chun and dumplings are not my idea of a special first Christmas together.”

To save thousands of girlfriends from disappointment this December, and to save their boyfriends from unwittingly landing in the dog house at year end, let’s address this timely issue. Boys and men, you will be much better served if you think of Christmas in China as Valentine’s Day.

A dumpling dinner – even at a joint that serves up “five amazing flavors” – is a classic example of what not to do with your girlfriend during “Chinese Christmas”.

Without the religious or cultural traditions to back up the festive occasion, Christmas has grown into a major commercial production in big cities over the last decade. It is now an occasion when ladies expect their men to make a big fuss, much like a Western anniversary night requires a candle-lit diner deux.

A good ole Chinese Christmas bears no resemblance to the mass going, home cooking, family gathering, and eggnog drinking affair of the West. Here, Dec 24 is a night not to spend at home with your folks. While Chinese New Year is sacred time reserved for relatives, this “imported” December holiday is a special time for friends and lovers.

This week, restaurants are pushing special Christmas menus, malls stay open late into the night, bars and clubs offer yuletide happy hours, and hot spots like Wangfujing and Houhai are buzzing with lights and music. Travel agencies even send off adventurers on a seasonal tour of Finland, which (along with Sweden and Norway) claims to be the home of Santa Claus.

Sounds like sacrilege? Not more so than the massive consumption campaigns that take place on Black Friday in America. The bottom line: with all these dazzling commercial options it would be foolish to not plant yourself in a place conducive to a joyous count down when the clock strikes midnight on Dec 24.

A mouth full of cabbage dumplings may not be your honey’s idea of ambience. Chinese couples ring in Christmas Day like it’s 1999 – with a kiss and champagne corks a-flying.

Singles need not fret for Chinese Christmas. Unlike on actual Valentine’s Day, this time of year offers groups of friends an excuse to hit up entertainment venues in droves without feeling embarrassed or sorry.

Chinese Christmas may smack of marketing, but hey, don’t be a scrooge. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. The only bad news? Planning a romantic Christmas Eve will not absolve you of the responsibility to repeat the exercise all over again when Feb 14 rolls around.

Publication today: China Daily

Canine life in the capital

When we moved to Beijing from the Northeast in 1986, there was no question of bringing the family dog, Feihu. Those days, it would’ve been so “country cousin” to take a domesticated canine to the big city.

Imagine an animal in a modern government-issued apartment block! Alternatively, the neighbors might’ve viewed it as unpatriotically lavish. Feeding an extra mouth when every other dutiful citizen lives three to a household?! Either way, a pet was simply not an option in the old capital.

Pity little Feihu only lived to be 14 and never saw the sweet life of a canine in the capital today. Recently, I picked up a stray puppy. Following a much needed bath, the next order of business was to get my Xiaoheigou (“little black dog” for a brownish pooch) registered as a Beijing “resident”.

A friend talked me through the dog permit steps, dryly adding, “My little brother (born overseas) is still holding a rural hukou, but our dog is a bona fide urban dweller.”

That was just the beginning. Little by little, I’m learning how much things have changed for pets in the city. Whereas Feihu was once considered lucky to have table scraps, my dog-owning friends were aghast when I naively suggested feeding Xiaohei the same. Under fire from their chastisement, I ran to the supermarket. Standing in front of shelves stacked with colorful bags of imported dog food, I couldn’t make a move for fear of buying the wrong chow.

Is my street mutt a “small breed” or just a “puppy”? Would he prefer “chicken flavor” or “beef chunks”? At my mother’s impatient prompting – “He’s a dog. Any kind of kibble should do.” – I decided on an economy-sized bag. It still cost me the equivalent of a modest restaurant meal for two.

As I went on daily walks with Xiaohei around the compound, my neighbors were quick to point out other doggy must-have’s. “Who cuts his hair?” Nobody, I didn’t think he needed a coiffeur. “A small dog needs a sweater for the winter.” Thanks, Martha, I’ll get my knitting needles out. “You shouldn’t wash him with your shampoo; his fur will lose its shine.” Noted, I’m on it.

All this clucking sent me guiltily back to the pet store, where I was in for more surprises. A bottle of doggy shampoo costs 80 yuan. That’s four times what I pay for my Pantene. Canine clothing? Pull out a few hundred yuan. A shearling dog bed (I don’t even think it’s right to make one animal sleep on the fur of another!) will set you back a writing desk for your study.

Thinking of my mother’s reproach were I to splurge on these bourgeois pet amenities, I decided Xiaohei could do without. But there are things I simply can’t scrimp on. Take vaccines – rabies shots, 60 yuan, and basic check-up, 200 yuan. That’s more than a visit to a human hospital would cost! The nurse looked at me pityingly, “But you only got the bare basics for your dog, dear.”

Perhaps the money that Beijingers are willing to spend on their dogs is less telling than the deep emotion they’ve invested. The Dog Walking Brigade in my neighborhood forms catty cliques the way mothers band together at PTA meetings. These new capital canine owners talk about their dogs as if they were their one child.

On the issue of discipline: “My Maomao never runs wild with other dogs.” On icky ailments: “How do you cure your Golden’s heat rashes?” On playground fights: “Stay away from the Huskies in Building 10. Last week they sent a poodle in Building 6 to the hospital with their bites.”

On bad parenting: “That one never picks up after his Corgi poops on the path.” And, of course, there’s occasional drama: “Better get your dog fixed before he causes trouble. Last year, a lady sued her neighbor after his dog got hers pregnant!”

From my little corner in Chaoyang, it certainly looks like the canines are keeping their owners on a tight leash in the capital!

Canine life in the capital

By Qi Zhai (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-12-18 09:51
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Canine life in the capital

When we moved to Beijing from the Northeast in 1986, there was no question of bringing the family dog, Feihu. Those days, it would’ve been so “country cousin” to take a domesticated canine to the big city.

Imagine an animal in a modern government-issued apartment block! Alternatively, the neighbors might’ve viewed it as unpatriotically lavish. Feeding an extra mouth when every other dutiful citizen lives three to a household?! Either way, a pet was simply not an option in the old capital.

Pity little Feihu only lived to be 14 and never saw the sweet life of a canine in the capital today. Recently, I picked up a stray puppy. Following a much needed bath, the next order of business was to get my Xiaoheigou (“little black dog” for a brownish pooch) registered as a Beijing “resident”.

A friend talked me through the dog permit steps, dryly adding, “My little brother (born overseas) is still holding a rural hukou, but our dog is a bona fide urban dweller.”

That was just the beginning. Little by little, I’m learning how much things have changed for pets in the city. Whereas Feihu was once considered lucky to have table scraps, my dog-owning friends were aghast when I naively suggested feeding Xiaohei the same. Under fire from their chastisement, I ran to the supermarket. Standing in front of shelves stacked with colorful bags of imported dog food, I couldn’t make a move for fear of buying the wrong chow.

Is my street mutt a “small breed” or just a “puppy”? Would he prefer “chicken flavor” or “beef chunks”? At my mother’s impatient prompting – “He’s a dog. Any kind of kibble should do.” – I decided on an economy-sized bag. It still cost me the equivalent of a modest restaurant meal for two.

As I went on daily walks with Xiaohei around the compound, my neighbors were quick to point out other doggy must-have’s. “Who cuts his hair?” Nobody, I didn’t think he needed a coiffeur. “A small dog needs a sweater for the winter.” Thanks, Martha, I’ll get my knitting needles out. “You shouldn’t wash him with your shampoo; his fur will lose its shine.” Noted, I’m on it.

All this clucking sent me guiltily back to the pet store, where I was in for more surprises. A bottle of doggy shampoo costs 80 yuan. That’s four times what I pay for my Pantene. Canine clothing? Pull out a few hundred yuan. A shearling dog bed (I don’t even think it’s right to make one animal sleep on the fur of another!) will set you back a writing desk for your study.

Thinking of my mother’s reproach were I to splurge on these bourgeois pet amenities, I decided Xiaohei could do without. But there are things I simply can’t scrimp on. Take vaccines – rabies shots, 60 yuan, and basic check-up, 200 yuan. That’s more than a visit to a human hospital would cost! The nurse looked at me pityingly, “But you only got the bare basics for your dog, dear.”

Perhaps the money that Beijingers are willing to spend on their dogs is less telling than the deep emotion they’ve invested. The Dog Walking Brigade in my neighborhood forms catty cliques the way mothers band together at PTA meetings. These new capital canine owners talk about their dogs as if they were their one child.

On the issue of discipline: “My Maomao never runs wild with other dogs.” On icky ailments: “How do you cure your Golden’s heat rashes?” On playground fights: “Stay away from the Huskies in Building 10. Last week they sent a poodle in Building 6 to the hospital with their bites.”

Canine life in the capital

On bad parenting: “That one never picks up after his Corgi poops on the path.” And, of course, there’s occasional drama: “Better get your dog fixed before he causes trouble. Last year, a lady sued her neighbor after his dog got hers pregnant!”

From my little corner in Chaoyang, it certainly looks like the canines are keeping their owners on a tight leash in the capital!

Dear Q: The Buffer Friend

Dear Q,

I’m a man with many female friends. I always see them in a group setting but rarely – actually never – see them alone. Whenever I ask one friend out for dinner, a movie, or just coffee, she brings along another friend. Now, if I actually had a crush on any of my female friends, I would understand (though would be sad about) the presence of a “Buffer Friend.” However, since I don’t crush on any of my women friends, I find the buffer annoying, presumptuous, and, frankly, an offensive suggestion that I’m immature. Do my friends think that if they didn’t bring a buffer, I would suddenly pounce and profess my undying love awkwardly? So, tired, I ask: why are all my female friends weird about seeing me alone? Why do they all think I’m hitting on them?

Signed,

Hitless Wonder

Dear Hitless Wonder,

There are indeed pitfalls to having many female friends. You’re stuck in the “just a friend” penalty box with the ones you want to be with. You often get mistaken for the gay BFF. And, as you’ve now highlighted to me, you deal with the bothersome “buffer friend” problem. I wonder if your friends aren’t just a particularly sensitive or conservative bunch? Or is there something about your behavior that makes them uncomfortable? We could put these questions to a simple test. Did your female friends have “chaperones” on their dates in high school? Do they get upset when you say “You look nice today” because it implies they didn’t look swell yesterday? Is the number of dates after which they think it’s appropriate to give a goodnight kiss higher than 10? If the answer to any of the above is “Yes” then the problem likely rests with your friends. It’s time to make some more chilled out female friends! Now, as for you, has anyone ever used the words “touchy feely” to describe you? Do you find girls backing away from you as you get deeper and deeper into conversation (and their personal space)? It’s possible that you’re the culprit here and some simple polishing up on social etiquette will fix the problem.

Best,

Q

The Accommodating Chinese

It struck me as my husband was zipping around Beijing bantering in un-intonated Mandarin (and often confusing “ni” for “wo”) with taxi drivers that we Chinese are quite an accommodating people. Most Chinese strangers the Mister comes across are delighted with his attempt to speak their language. His cheerful “nihao” and “xiexie” never fails to draw bemused, even flattered, smiles. Often, people shower encouragement on him by slowly enunciating, “Ni-de-zhong-wen-hen-hao!” (“Your Mandarin is very good!”).

What a reception he has gotten here! Much better than any I’ve received over the years in France. I’ve been learning their language since I was twelve years old, have polished my accent to Parisian near-perfection, and yet, over entire summers spent there, only a handful of strangers will stop to admire this foreigner’s dedication to learning French. It’s like they expected my love for their language and culture (despite just how discouraging they can be to the foreign student). Once in a while, I still meet the Parisian lady who thinks she’s being generously nice when she tells me my accent is “très leger” (“very light”). Gee, thanks.

Contrast that with how my many expat friends here (who have vastly varying command over Chinese) are treated. When I first met M in the US, he was just starting his quest to master Mandarin. Now he’s more of a Beijinger than I am and can chat up the surliest cabbie. Every time I’m out with him, a waiter, vendor, or driver will inevitably raise his thumb and tell M, “Your Chinese is ‘zhen bang’ (‘super fantastic’).” This is usually followed by a lament on the Chinese inability to speak English as well. Here, I have to resist the urge to defend our people and tell them just how many Chinese people speak English with native fluency. Why ruin a good cross-cultural conversation?

So what if we Chinese delight in the attentions foreigners pay to our humble heritage? I don’t mind the good natured compliments. After all, it helps to spread our culture in a friendly way. What peeves me sometimes is how much foreigners can get away with here. One night, we were entertaining a friend from New York who was in Beijing on business for the first time. We were late to a Peking Opera performance but the nearest cab line was packed. I tried in vain to hail a taxi on the street. Joel, our visitor, coolly said, “Why don’t we see if these people will let us cut in front of the line?”

“Are you crazy? This is China. With 1.3 billion people around, nobody does favors for anyone when it comes to lining up.” I laughed.

But then, with his American naïveté, Joel walked his tall handsome frame to the line and explained his predicament in English, gesturing all the while. I watched with open mouth as people graciously nodded and made room for him at the head of the line. We were on the next cab out.

What was it that made things so easy for Joel? Every time I legitimately try to beg a favor (or even just civility) out of a stranger, I get nasty looks or apathetic shrugs. Are we simply more willing to accommodate foreigners? Or am I especially unconvincing and bad at eliciting compassion?

Perhaps it’s a little bit of the latter, but also a little bit of our cultural humility. We’re critical of our own talents, but we lavish exaggerated compliments on foreigners who make an effort to learn our ways. Oh, how I wish Paris could be a little bit more like Beijing in this respect.

Dear Q: Cambridge Rebound

Dear Q,

My “old flame”, if you could even call him that, recently came back from Cambridge. Years ago at school, he played the older, responsible, big brother to me, a young, naïve, and lost new arrival. We had a brief romantic interlude in the beginning, but then spent most of our two years together as platonic friends. I returned to Beijing first. When he came back, we met up and ended up hanging out all day. As we bid farewell in the subway, he suddenly hugged me close and started kissing me. I was startled as he kissed my hair and forehead, but turned away when he tried to kiss me on the lips. After that awkward incident, he never mentioned it again and now pretends that nothing happened. I know he recently broke up with his very demanding girlfriend, but his inexplicable behavior is making me very confused. What’s going on?

Signed,

Reunited With Big Brother

Dear Reunited,

Our famous writers have waxed poetic over the romance of Cambridge. I’m not surprised that your reunion with this “sort of” campus ex is fanning romantic flames. So, what’s going on? The first thing is to ask yourself, “What’s going on.” How do you feel about Big Brother now? You clearly liked his company at school, but were perhaps too young to commit at the time. Now that you’re both working, back in the homeland, and mature enough to reconsider, are you actually attracted to him? If you are, then why did you dodge the kissing ambush? Or do you only want to rekindle the “friends” part of your relationship? Then are you waiting for him to mention the incident again so you can set the record straight? I think you’re confused about your own feelings for him and are waiting for him to take the initiative on sorting things out. Now, what’s going on with him? It’s likely that the emotionally charged break up (with demanding ex) and reunion (with you) threw his rational world order into disarray. He might have been acting on an impulse to regain female intimacy, or an urge to fulfill his once unrequited feelings for you, or maybe he’s simply been watching too many wistful rom-com’s while moping alone. Whatever the cause, the fact that he hasn’t tried again, nor alluded to the issue, shows that he’s not yet sure what he wants. Why not enjoy being in Beijing with an old friend again and when one, or both, of you figures out what you most want from the other, bring up the awkward subway kiss in conversation?

Best,

Q

The Accommodating Chinese

It struck me as my husband was zipping around Beijing bantering in un-intonated Mandarin (and often confusing “ni” for “wo”) with taxi drivers that we Chinese are quite an accommodating people. Most Chinese strangers the Mister comes across are delighted with his attempt to speak their language. His cheerful “nihao” and “xiexie” never fails to draw bemused, even flattered, smiles. Often, people shower encouragement on him by slowly enunciating, “Ni-de-zhong-wen-hen-hao!” (“Your Mandarin is very good!”).

What a reception he has gotten here! Much better than any I’ve received over the years in France. I’ve been learning their language since I was twelve years old, have polished my accent to Parisian near-perfection, and yet, over entire summers spent there, only a handful of strangers will stop to admire this foreigner’s dedication to learning French. It’s like they expected my love for their language and culture (despite just how discouraging they can be to the foreign student). Once in a while, I still meet the Parisian lady who thinks she’s being generously nice when she tells me my accent is “très leger” (“very light”). Gee, thanks.

Contrast that with how my many expat friends here (who have vastly varying command over Chinese) are treated. When I first met M in the US, he was just starting his quest to master Mandarin. Now he’s more of a Beijinger than I am and can chat up the surliest cabbie. Every time I’m out with him, a waiter, vendor, or driver will inevitably raise his thumb and tell M, “Your Chinese is ‘zhen bang’ (‘super fantastic’).” This is usually followed by a lament on the Chinese inability to speak English as well. Here, I have to resist the urge to defend our people and tell them just how many Chinese people speak English with native fluency. Why ruin a good cross-cultural conversation?

So what if we Chinese delight in the attentions foreigners pay to our humble heritage? I don’t mind the good natured compliments. After all, it helps to spread our culture in a friendly way. What peeves me sometimes is how much foreigners can get away with here. One night, we were entertaining a friend from New York who was in Beijing on business for the first time. We were late to a Peking Opera performance but the nearest cab line was packed. I tried in vain to hail a taxi on the street. Joel, our visitor, coolly said, “Why don’t we see if these people will let us cut in front of the line?”

“Are you crazy? This is China. With 1.3 billion people around, nobody does favors for anyone when it comes to lining up.” I laughed.

But then, with his American naïveté, Joel walked his tall handsome frame to the line and explained his predicament in English, gesturing all the while. I watched with open mouth as people graciously nodded and made room for him at the head of the line. We were on the next cab out.

What was it that made things so easy for Joel? Every time I legitimately try to beg a favor (or even just civility) out of a stranger, I get nasty looks or apathetic shrugs. Are we simply more willing to accommodate foreigners? Or am I especially unconvincing and bad at eliciting compassion?

Perhaps it’s a little bit of the latter, but also a little bit of our cultural humility. We’re critical of our own talents, but we lavish exaggerated compliments on foreigners who make an effort to learn our ways. Oh, how I wish Paris could be a little bit more like Beijing in this respect.