Loving and labeling

When can you rightfully call him your “boyfriend”? A certain Colette Li answers in Global Times today.


Over lunch the other day, a girlfriend popped this question: “When can I call him my ‘boyfriend?'” She has been seeing a wonderful new man for a few months. We all know him by name (and even by a secret nickname), they’re dating exclusively, and, yes, they have slept together. Yet, for whatever unspoken reason, they haven’t had the “DTR” (define the relationship) talk, leaving my friend no choice but to refer to him clumsily as “the guy I’m seeing” in casual conversations.

Loving and labeling was so easy when we were 16. He made you a mix tape – he’s your “boyfriend.” You bought her roses on Valentine’s – she’s your “girlfriend.” You doodled his name all over your math notebook – he’s a “crush.” You drunkenly made out with her at your buddy’s party – she’s a “hook up.”

As adults, we find ourselves floundering for what to call someone we’re more than “in like” with, but not yet “in love” with. The labels we once assigned in cavalier fashion suddenly acquire an air of permanence. And so, we agonize in private over what name to bestow upon the men and women with whom we dine intimately, stroll in the park, and turn off the bedroom lights.

You can get by on euphemisms – like “lover,” “lady friend,” “flame,” or “beau” – for a while, but at a certain point, the “boyfriend-girlfriend” label becomes inevitable. When do you know that time has come? I profess no knowledge of the universal rules of the love game, but I can offer my personal checklist of five things that pretty much make your paramour a boyfriend, or girlfriend.

1.You’re not seeing anyone else

Exclusivity by itself doesn’t earn you the right to call someone a “bf” or “gf,” but it’s a prerequisite to getting there. If he’s canoodling with you on Thursday, but sampling other goods on Saturday, you’re still a ways off from labeling.

2.You get together about 3.5 times a week

At last, mathematical precision to love. If you’re seeing your “special friend” on average every other day of the week (round up from three), then you’re definitely an item. Working folks are busy, so if you’re making time for frequent rendezvous, then it’s a worthwhile relationship.

3.You’ve fought…and made up

When a blind date does something annoying, you politely ignore it and delete their number from your phone after getting home. But when someone you care about does something that bothers you, it’s worth raising a fuss, even if it leads to a fight. You’ll be happily on your way to “boyfriend-girlfriend” territory if it’s not the last fight you have.

4.You’re passionate, but also tender

Sex with strangers stirs the passions, but most people save the slow deliberate lovemaking for someone who matters. The same goes for small gestures, like kissing her fingertips or forehead, or rubbing his neck when he’s tired. The little tendresses signify you’re more than just “friends with benefits.”

5.You “check in”

He may not promise to call and you may not feel entitled to demand it, but somehow you find yourselves communicating at regular intervals. You email him during the workday, he texts you after a night out, maybe you even Skype when one of you is away. Making the effort to stay in touch, even if not constantly, is a sign of emotional commitment.

So, you’ve checked off the list, should you drop the “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” bomb on your special someone the next time you see them? No, no, and no. If you meet all the conditions on my list, you’re probably in a de facto committed relationship. As for why you two haven’t started labeling, the only way to know for sure is to talk it out. Have a serious “DTR,” drop some hints, or make a cute joke about it, whatever suits your style. At least you’ll enter the conversation armed with five pieces of evidence as to why you should be having the talk.


Nose jobs for jobs

Young people in China are taking drastic measures — getting plastic surgery — to improve their chances at getting good jobs. It’s unfathomable to me, but in this country, where height requirements and a “pleasant face” are explicitly stated in many job postings, people with fewer marketable skills may have no choice but to go under the knife. Read it here, or on China Daily:


Plato postulatedon  the golden proportions of beauty, the “magic ratios” that make a face pleasing to the eye. A golden visage is one with a width two-thirds of its length and a nose “no longer than the distance between the eyes.”

Here in China, standards of beauty are less mathematically defined, but no less widely championed:

“Female, not older than 25 years, 1.65 meters or taller, pleasant features.”

“Male, 26 years or older, pleasant features, healthy constitution, unmarried.”

These snippets aren’t taken from personal ads on an online dating website. Nor are they physical requirements for winning a modeling contract. They are typical job descriptions printed on A4 sheets of paper and taped to restaurant windows, or posted on Ganji.com, China’s own Craigslist. The professional opportunities attached to these descriptions range from waitress to customer service representative to receptionist, to telemarketer – jobs that really should have no aesthetic demands at all.

What is a job seeker to do if he or she doesn’t hit the magic height or possess a “pleasant” enough mug?

There’s always surgery.

Last week, I was disturbed to read this statistic: “Up to 80 percent of Beijing’s plastic surgery market this summer consists of senior high school and college students hoping to improve their appearance and land better jobs.” The most common procedures requested by job hunters? Double eyelids, nose jobs, breast implants, and laser treatments.

Those are just the starter procedures. Back in 2003, The Guardian in the UK reported on the rising popularity of “leg lengthening” surgery in height-obsessed China. The procedure is excruciatingly painful (put simply, a doctor breaks your legs, inserts metal pins and progressively tightens an attached steel rack to stretch the limbs), but patients were eagerly streaming in. One brave 23-year-old girl said from her hospital bed, “It hurts, but it will be worth it to be taller. I’ll have more opportunities in life and a better chance of finding a good job.”

Employers in China can be more explicit about their demands on employees’ appearance than in the West – leading the young to shed money and tears in hope of better job prospects – but the relationship between beauty and employment has been long studied in the West. Every year, experimental psychologists give us new supporting evidence.

I remember sitting in Psychology 101 lecture years ago, shocked by the video my professor was showing. On screen, different human resource managers (unwitting experimental subjects) were interviewing one of two female job candidates (collaborators in the experiment) – one attractive, the other not so much – who submitted identical resumes. To a statistically significant degree, the hirers gave higher praise to the prettier job hunter.

More recently, studies carried out from Australia to Sweden have replicated these results. In 2007, researchers using Australian labor data found that a one standard deviation increase in beauty improves the probability of employment by 4 percent in men and 5 percent in women. Even in happy egalitarian Sweden, the same fictitious job application sent with two different photos attached – one an original, the other a digitally manipulated “obese” version – elicited different employer callback rates, by 6 percentage points to 8 percentage points (for men and women, respectively).

Other studies tease out yet more nuances. Not only do good-looking people have better luck in interviews, they also get cushier offers. A London survey of 11,000 33-year-olds found that unattractive men earn 15 percent less than attractive men, while their plain female counterparts make 11 percent less than prettier women. Studies carried out at the University of Florida, University of North Carolina, and University of Pittsburgh found that shorter people – generally deemed less attractive than their longer-limbed peers – get paid less.

Why the obsession with good-looking employees? What do big eyes, a delicate nose and chiseled cheekbones have to do with professional competence?

Explanations for the beauty-employment relationship vary, sometimes devolving into “chicken and egg” arguments.

Some say that beautiful children, teenagers, and adults get better treatment, growing up more confident, which helps them shine in job applications and salary negotiations. Others believe that there is a “halo effect” to good looks. Employers supposedly trust that attractive employees have better social skills and higher intelligence.

This blind confidence in beautiful people may even be pervasive among the masses, and not just limited to the human resource gods. An American psychologist, Gordon Patzer, sums up the phenomenon: “Good-looking men and women are generally judged to be more talented, kind, honest and intelligent than their less attractive counterparts. Controlled studies show people go out of their way to help attractive people – of the same and opposite sex – because they want to be liked and accepted by good-looking people.”

So, it seems that the high school and university seniors rushing to buy surgically enhanced looks at Beijing hospitals this year may be making sensible investments in their careers? Sad, but perhaps true. I’d like to believe that poise and real qualifications can overcome appearance-based barriers, but I can see how candidates who don’t meet stringent height requirements or have some kind of facial blemish or deformity have trouble simply getting a foot in the door.

Let’s hope that, among other improvements, our labor laws will come to borrow from the best in the American system where it’s illegal to make hiring decisions based on physical traits and disabilities. Until then, young graduates will continue to be incentivized to get nose jobs just to land jobs.

The judgment of my people

I know, how predictable. Here I go complaining about how Chinese people like to judge Chinese women who date non-Chinese (read: western, Caucasian, white, whatever euphemism you prefer) men. But, hey, it’s an important rant and it bears repeating.

One of my more devoted (most?) readers, DC, also points out that there’s another article on the subject of love in today’s paper, right next to mine. DC says: “Amusing and somewhat sad irony that the headline link of your today’s China Daily article appears directly above another article by a Chinese female (Dinah Chong Watkins), entitled “Why women miss their chance with Mr Right”.  Your usual laudable efforts to promote a more international and cosmopolitan consciousness in China is totally negated by Watkins’ reactionary piece, which implies that the only possible “Mr Right” for a Chinese woman to marry is a Chinese man (odd that her surname suggests she’s married to a foreigner!).

Read here, or at China Daily:


We the Chinese are a judgmental people, unafraid of assumptions, eager with advice and completely unencumbered by the Western notions of “political correctness”. I say this with the deepest affection for my culture and my people. Despite some of the American sensibilities I have acquired over the years, I still very much espouse the Chinese brand of straight-forwardness.

Why pretend to like foreign food if your palate has life-long been accustomed to one cuisine? Although my father’s insistence on rice at every meal inconvenienced family holidays abroad, I prefer his unabashed honesty to faux cosmopolitan politesse. It used to bother me when my American clients, for the sake of making conversation, would exclaim to me, “I love Chinese food!” Their favorite dishes? Choy suey, lemon chicken, fortune cookies, and other culinary creations of dubious geographic origin.

I can make my own money!

Why go out of your way to compliment someone’s new haircut – which you secretly find unflattering – just to check off the courtesy box? (But I do draw the line at going out of your way to point out shortcomings, as older Chinese aunties are liable to do whenever they spot a few extra kilos on my frame).

However, there is one kind of judgment I can’t stand – the judgment we reserve for Chinese girls dating non-Chinese guys.

A lovely Chinese lady on the arm of a (sometimes) less lovely and older Western man is a common sight in this city. What do you think when you pass by such a pairing? I would bet that “meal ticket,” “gold digger,” or “green card marriage” are some of the Rorschach responses that spring to mind.

As an educated and capable Chinese woman in a relationship with an American man, I find these automatic assumptions infuriating. Yes, there are many cross-cultural “unequal” relationships, where an expat man “trades up” on looks and youth while his Chinese partner “trades down” on these features in exchange for a more comfortable life. But we are not all in relationships of convenience.

The quietly insulting experiences I have had at the receiving end of these blanket assumptions prompt me to remind everyone, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”

Once, when I was living in another predominantly Chinese-populated Asian capital, a cabbie chatted me up by asking, “What brings you here? Your husband’s job?” Through gritted teeth, I informed him that my boyfriend and I moved to this country together because we both had job offers to relocate.

That same week, as we went about settling into expat life, everyone from the part-time housekeeper to the bank teller peppered me with presumptuous questions, like “What will you do here? Shop? Enjoy life?” (“I will be busy working my job, thank you very much.”) and, “How come you lived in so many places? Always following your husband around?” (“No, I moved around to get the best education I could.”)

The unspoken assumption was always that I am an idle tai tai mooching off my foreign, lighter skinned, significant other.

More recently in Beijing, as I strolled through Houhai with my man, cries of “Hello, man! Music bar very good!” assailed us from every direction. When one of the zealous “bar salesmen” heard me speak Chinese he changed his strategy, asking in Chinese, “Bring your foreign friend to this bar.”

It was a subtle offense, but I’m hypersensitive on the subject and picked up on it immediately. He didn’t say “your boyfriend” or “your husband” – equally fair assumptions – but used the ambiguous “foreign friend.” What is he implying? That I’m some kind of “tour guide with perks” who can influence a foreigner’s spending decisions with my womanly charms?

In situations like these, I wish I could wear my CV on my forehead or shout, “I’m not with this man for his money, I can make my own!”

But what’s the use of that? People will just keep on judging. Perhaps I’d be better off playing along as the non-English speaking local arm candy.

A new Dali courtyard favorite

The first time I went to Dianke Dianlai, at a friend’s behest, I was annoyed at having to look for the hutong venue. But after the mint leaf salad, I was glad I made the trek. Here’s my review of the restaurant, published in CityWeekend this month:


Dianke Dianlai (滇客滇来)
Add: 8 Fangjia Hutong, Chaoyangmen Nei (朝阳门内, 方家胡同8号)
Tel: 6512-0930
Price: Y200-Y299

Authentic cuisine (cooked by a former Dali Courtyard chef) and an unpretentious setting may make this Beijing’s best new Yunnan courtyard restaurant. The concept here is also no menus, just set meals for ¥98 or ¥198. Dishes made from ingredients flown in every other day carry more subtly nuanced flavors than the salt-and -vinegar concoctions at Middle 8th. Menu items rotate based on the day’s freshest ingredients, but some staples, like the delightful mint leaf salad and our favorite—the bamboo grilled fish—make regular appearances. Kick back with a Dali beer (¥15), chat up the friendly Yunnan staff, and enjoy a relaxing evening. The only downer? A squat toilet.

China’s linguistic police

If you, like me, are a fan of languages then you might enjoy this piece for NewsChina magazine last month, musing on China’s nascent effort to regulate its linguistic evolution in the tradition of l’Academie Francaise. Read it here or on NewsChina’s website:


The Linguistic Police
By Qi Zhai 2010/06/05

When French president Nicholas Sarkozy recently visited China with his stylish wife, Chinese media hailed the event as a bilateral rapprochement. I dutifully read splashy headlines featuring the dashing couple and thought back to earlier that month, when China took a quieter, rather unilateral step towards bringing itself in line with France.

In early April, China started “linguistic policing,” in the tradition of l’Académie francaise, without making a fuss. News reports surfaced that the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television had ordered major broadcasters, like CCTV and BTV, to stop using English acronyms – such as NBA, WTO, and CPI – on air.

What pernicious harm could these three-lettered words possibly have caused to warrant censorship? As far as I can tell, the linguistic policing effort stems from remarks made by Huang Youyi, Vice President of the International Federation of Translators, “If we don’t pay attention and don’t take measures to stop the expansion of mingling Chinese and English, Chinese won’t be a pure language in a couple of years,” Huang cautioned.

Details on the Chinese linguistic purity movement are sparse – as with many top level directives – but it’s no doubt reminiscent of the ardent Gallic mission to keep French French.

Established in 1635, l’Académie francaise is the authority on French grammar and vocabulary. Readers coming from less lofty linguistic backgrounds can think of l’Académie as the bouncer at an exclusive club – it decides who comes in and who stays out. Each year, l’Académie and the panoply of related government bodies go through a cumbersome, but regimented, process of translating, defining, and approving new entrants to the French lexicon (around 300 new words are admitted annually).

An example illustrates the workings of the French linguistic police and, perhaps, serves as a model for the Chinese. In early 2008, a member of the General Delegation for the French Language and the Languages of France came across the term “cloud computing” in a magazine and brought it to the attention of linguistic authorities. Although the term was deemed important enough to receive priority in the queue, eighteen months later, a select committee was still debating how to incorporate it into French.

The committee had considered a few options: a literal translation (informatique en nuage, literally “computing in cloud”), a poetic turn; (Capacité Informatique en Ligne, abbreviated as “CIEL,” meaning “sky”); or a total scrapping of the heavenly allusions (dans les nuages, or “in the clouds”).

This brings me to the nascent Chinese linguistic police. In spirit, the “acronym ban” emulates the French model. In practice, our system lacks rationale and rigor.

For all its inefficiency, the French mission is at least enshrined in the Constitution, which states, “The language of the Republic shall be French.”

By contrast, the Chinese attempt is vague and opaque. The government hasn’t made official statements on the acronym ban, there are no comprehensive lists of the forbidden abbreviations, and broadcasters themselves are confused about when the rule applies. Enforcement has been lax, probably because there’s general befuddlement as to who exactly should be doing the policing.

The only rationale I can think of for this sudden interest in linguistic purity is promotion of cultural-linguistic nationalism, part of a wider push for a greater voice for Asia – especially for China – in the global media.

Whatever the reasons and means, the French and Chinese may both be wasting their time. Policing has proven unsuccessful in France (and will likely follow suit in China), where even the prestigious national universities teach marketing using English terminology.

I’d also make a low-brow argument for taking it easy on language – it’s simply less fun. As commerce, culture, and communities evolve, language morphs to reflect social changes. I enjoy a good chuckle every time I recall the English roots of not-so-recent additions to the Chinese vocabulary, like “sofa” (shafa), “jeep” (jipu), and “coffee” (kafei).

Yoga wisdoms

An awesome awesome yoga teacher here in Singapore – Greg – has been introducing me to yoga wisdoms at the end of every class. Last week, he recommended the book “How Yoga Works.” I’m on page 15 and already I’ve bookmarked a few passages to think about, remember, and share… here comes wisdom #1, taken from “Yoga Sutra”:

Things that cannot last

Seem to us as if they will.


Cartoon politics: Are the Smurfs Communists?

It’s no secret that I love “The Smurfs.” When I read that China is making a seriously protectionist push to develop a domestic “comics and animation” industry, I thought of other cartoon politics. You’ve heard the theories — are the Smurfs really communists? Read it here or on China Daily:


“La la la la la la
La la la la la!”

So goes the tune that every Chinese child who watched television in the 1980s remembers fondly. Can’t quite recall where this familiar monosyllabic jingle comes from? I’ll give you some hints – they’re blue, they live in mushroom-shaped houses and the majority of them habitually go topless.

It’s the Smurfs – “blue goblins” or “blue sprites,” as they were named in Chinese – I’m talking about. These little creatures, who stand but “three crab apples tall,” brought much joy to me as a child, as they also did for many American children who watched the original English language version airing on NBC from 1981 to 1989.

I can unequivocally say that the Smurfs, who are making a comeback with a 3D Hollywood movie due to come out next year, were my favorite cartoon characters. Many other fictional figures accompanied my childhood. There was Mr Black (Heimaojingzhang), which was made into a movie in China this year; Lulu Flower (Huaxianzi ) and Ikkyu-san (Yixiuge), both imports from Japan; Huluwa (or the Gourd Brothers), super-powered septuplets fighting evil forces and, of course, Transformers.

Yet none of these other animated characters appealed to me as much as the merry band of blue goblins that spent their days in harmony despite being chased by the evil Gargamel. Even as an adult, I remained enamored of the Smurfs, managing to convince two colleagues to paint our faces blue and wear electric blue tights to be Smurfs at the company Halloween party one year and track down, in European antique bookstores, original copies of the Belgian comics, Les Schtroumpfs, which inspired the animated series.

It wasn’t the splashy movie trailers that brought the Smurfs to mind now. Rather, a news article in this paper made me think about them again. This week, I read the headline “Call to foster domestic cartoon industry” (July 11) and learned that China has been making a push to develop a domestic comics and animation industry. The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television issued a circular in 2004 requiring at least 60 percent of cartoons shown on television to be domestically produced. Another missive in 2006 banned foreign cartoons from airing from 5pm to 8pm, later extended to 9pm in 2008. Along with favorable tax incentives, the government is also spending 200 million yuan each year to boost the sector.

That’s a lot of thought – and money – to pour into colorful figures that speak in high-pitched voices. But why? Who really cares whether Chinese children are watching woolly domestic characters, such as Pleasant Goat, or imported ones, such as Astro Boy?

The more I pondered the puzzle the more I realized that people do, in fact, care plenty about messages broadcast to children. In addition to promoting domestic industries and jobs (whether protectionism actually works is another issue), the cartoon policies could serve to ensure that Chinese children are exposed to characters they can better identify with and messages deemed more appropriate than imported ones.

The irony, however, is that while we Chinese may be worrying about foreign cartoons now, foreigners have actually been fretting about them for years. Since the Smurfs became popular in the US three decades ago, Western conspiracy theorists have been complaining about their latent “communist content.”

Sounds bizarre? Consider the “evidence.” The Smurfs lived in a communal village where all the harvest was stored in mushrooms and equitably distributed throughout the year. Each Smurf takes what he or she needs and pitches in what he or she can – that is, in designated roles, such as Painter Smurf or Handy Smurf. The grand antagonist Gargamel is determined to catch the Smurfs, boil them, and turn them into gold, making him a prototype capitalist.

The political analogy carries even further, to the Smurfs’ sartorial sense. That each Smurf dressed in a uniform of white shorts and white cap, with rare pieces of individual flair, is surely an endorsement of conformity. Papa Smurf, the leader of the pack, sports a large white beard, making him resemble Karl Marx, and wears a red cap, which surely means more. Brainy Smurf, the “square” character who comes close to matching Papa Smurf’s intellect, wears spectacles, supposedly giving him a Trotsky-ish air.

This may all seem rather far-fetched and I’ve yet to see decisive proof on the subject. But I will say that in the 1980s, the Smurfs was the only Western cartoon I recall being broadcast on Chinese television. (Incidentally, it was billed as a French cartoon, although the characters were created by Belgian cartoonist Peyo and later animated by the American company Hanna-Barbera Productions.)

So what are we innocent viewers to make of the Smurf controversy? Are the Smurfs communists? And, more importantly, what will be the impact of the cartoon policies?

On the first question, I echo the sentiments of a Chinese netizen who posted this reply on a message board: “Give me a break, it’s just a cartoon. Must we bring politics into everything?”

As for the second issue, I’m a cartoon politics agnostic. I prefer to remember the Smurfs for the happiness they brought me as a child. If China’s cartoon protectionism generates jobs, fosters creativity, and spreads messages about sharing, respect and other good values among children, then so be it. But I couldn’t care less if animated figures shown on television are Chinese or foreign, red or blue, as long as they entertain and educate.