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Gold

Spring of 2011. The Autumn of my 9 years in China.

Out riding a Weihai City Park, I see a newly installed sculpture on my usual bike route: a fairy ring of giant golden bamboo shoots.

Always curious and carrying my camera, I roll up on my bike. Lay it down. An old man with skin the look of an old leather wallet rests on a bench. He inspects me with nearly shuttered eyes and then speaks: “The fishing ain’t too good right now”. (Edit: in Chinese)

You should know, first, that I’m not carrying a single piece of fishing gear. Yet… despite my lack of fishing tackle, the question is not odd because Weihai is precisely at the center of the East-Asian fishing universe, and today I’m decked out in winter BIKE gear: cycling tights and tush-shielding cold weather bike jacket, light weight backpack and nylon shoulder sling with a tripod stashed inside—all within line of sight of the Bohai sea. In Weihai such a costume can easily be mistaken for fishing gear by someone who knows nothing_about_cycling, which… oddly… most Chinese do not.

“I’m taking pictures,” I mumble, fearful of the oncoming interview… drawing my camera. Looking away. Pretending he’s not there.

And I fidget like any expectant China deportee might after serving a decade long sentence in the Middle Kingdom… having had enough “foreigner interviews”, enough bad driving, food poisoning, people shouting “laowai” (Chinese slang for foreigners), crappy internet connections, constant casual littering, public hoarking, mindless robotic censorship, knee jerk oppression, bureaucratic convolution, and of course crappy air (and I’m in the “clean air city” of China).

Yes, part of me wants to run away from this friendly man screaming in terror.

“I can hold the camera,” he offers, not to be ignored. He holds out some shaking, nicotine stained fingers and grins at me with a row of alternating brown, black, yellow, white, and silver capped teeth–and clicks his finger as if he’s shooting a camera.

So he thinks I want my picture taken next to the sculpture.

“No… thank you.” Pricey camera.

“Where you from?”

Yeeeeeeees, I think, an inner weariness falling on me. I can feel it coming: his variation on the same barrage of questions any Western expat in China might hear daily, a list I imagine to be handed down from some monolithic Chinese ministry.

Me: “Canada”.
Him: “Do you speak Canadian?”
Me: “No we speak English and French in Canada.”
Him: “Are you a teacher?”.
Me: “Writer and graphic designer”.
Him: “How much money do you make?”
Me: “Not very much.”
Him: “No really how much money do you make?”
Me: “If I told you the tax bureau would imprison me.”
Him, now nodding briskly: “Ahhhhhhhhhhh.”

He reflects—inscrutably—considering my last answer with an air of profound seriousness. He is endeared, I suspect, to the confession of a tax crime: there’s no better way to be “one of us” in China.

He lights a cigarette and offers me one, a clear overture of friendship or prospective business. I am warmed, but I still refuse the smoke. Cigarettes are poisonous enough with strict government regulation. It terrifies me to imagine what they contain in China’s ‘free market’.

I circle the sculpture, eyeing it, him eyeing me. His brow wrinkles in puzzlement.

“What are you doing?”

I wonder why this is not obvious. Can it be that he has never seen a camera before? “Preparing to take a picture,” I explain.

“Ahhhhhhh.” More nodding. Cloud of smoke. More thought.

I take a few pictures, browse them in the display, then lay on the ground and get the posted shot.

“You’re a photographer,” then a long pause from nicotine guy before returning to the ministry mandated list of questions. He flashes a calico-metallic smile and shifts to the old classic: “Canada is a really big country, right? My cousin has a friend who moved there, Wei Song Li, do you know him?”

… Her? I wonder. Pronouns are dodgy in spoken Chinese; as is my Chinese. Anyway… I get this angle a lot, as if the friend came to live in my village. Except it’s Canada, the second largest country with the tenth lowest population density, and my hometown is a million strong. For heaven’s sake, we Canadians wouldn’t even be able to see each other if we spread out. Buuuuut I don’t go there with Nicotine guy. Instead I figure to…

“I might have seen him/her. He/she looks Chinese, right?”…. I let it trail off.

A tense moment passes. He shutters his eyes—almost closed. They disappear. I wonder if it’s a glare.

So I roll back toward the statues, gazing vulnerably up at the human sized golden bamboo shoots through my viewfinder and hoping nobody pissed on them lately—which is a reasonable concern at the centerpiece of a Chinese public park. And all this disconcerting for him too: I mean what does one say to a smart-ass foreigner wearing tights and rolling about where men piss?

And so he radically changes his tack—which is usually welcome during a conversation in China.

“What do you think of Hitler?” he inquires.

A new question. Sinister and new. And completely unexpected. I hesitate, uncomfortable now and reverting to translating in my head: “Ummmmm. He was insane and evil?” I helplessly try to think of the word for “epic understatement”.

“But he was a great leader, wasn’t he? He shouldn’t have killed the Jewish people; they are good businessmen; that was crazy.”

I nod my head uncomfortably at his take on crazy. I search his eyes for genocidal rage and he smiles back amiably. His perspective goes a long way to permanently normalizing for me the Chinese reverence of Mao.

“Are you Jewish?” He asks.

Just… wow.

I give him a point for understanding that “Canadian” and “Jewish” are not mutually exclusive. Now hearing this you (yes, you “foreigners”) might think that he’s worrying that he’d committed a faux pas by mentioning Hitler or tossing off a Jewish racial trope, but I doubt it. The truth is that the Chinese are rarely sensitive about racial generalizations. They do it frequently and shamelessly, equally about themselves and others, always seemingly oblivious to western discomfort over racial generalization. Given that, it’s no big surprise that for the Chinese talking with foreigners about national character is a favorite topic…. Plus I guess the extermination of millions isn’t really a biggie in China.

And sure, I’m racially generalizing too. I’ve been in China so damn long I sometimes wonder if I’ve become Chinese–just as happened to the Mongols not long after their conquest of China. They were just… converted… absorbed… culturally consumed like a block of dofu at a streetside breakfast kiosk, a metaphor you’ll probably grasp a few weeks after stepping off the plane in Beijing. I feel so eaten.

“No, I’m not Jewish,” I finally get back to him after long and uncomfortable peripheral thought.

He slits his eyes again. “Germans make good cars.”

*shiver*

I imagine all the Germans I know making cars, wondering how many nationalities we’ll be going through today. I consider mentioning how great I think the Taiwanese people are but chicken out. So I slit my eyes back at him, but not quite so well.

We have a lull. And then, to my surprise, relief, and dismay: he yanks us back out of the Twilight Zone of friendly conversation and carries me back home to the nationally proscribed foreigner dialog of the People’s Republic of China, right back to the golden question that every foreigner in China will probably hear at least once for every single day they spend in China: “Are you comfortable eating Chinese food?”

My Chinese vocabulary heaves a huge sigh of relief.

“Of course,” I exclaim, “it’s delicious!”

Now Chinese food certainly is delicious, but the truth is that I developed a rather harsh allergy to soy and corn a few years into my China life. (Soy allergy in China—yes, the definitive end.)

Basically, I can no longer eat a single bloody thing from a Chinese kitchen. All of it, down to the last spoonful—and I’m not exaggerating here—all of it is totally infused with soy sauce, corn starch, and the varietous concoctions of corn derived preservatives that substantiate ALL modern industrial food production EVERYWHERE. Yah Canada, America, I’m looking at you, too.

And regardless of the soy and corn problem, I would never EVER set foot in a Weihai restaurant again on account of local sanitation standards, having long since suffered my share and more of grievous enterotoxic infections. And I HAVE seen Weihai cooks wash vegetables on the bathroom floor—next to a toilet dirtier than a stall in a bar district nightclub at 3 am on Sunday.

But my reply is expected! It friendly, plays on Chinese national pride, and keeps him pleasant.

“You should start a factory,” he then advises me; after all, I obviously lack the racial genes for good business sense. “That’s what foreigners should do, then you don’t have to ride a bicycle.”

I nod as if he’s just been really helpful. Everyone traveling to China should learn to nod like this because in China advice is as plentiful as rice.

“I’m leaving China next week,” settling that suggestion and smiling, maybe too much. I stand.

“Ahhhh… I see…. How is the weather in Canada?”

I laugh on the inside—and you’ll need to learn this, too, should you find yourself in China.

The weather in Canada. Oh how I have often pondered the billions of possible answers to this ever common question. I could explain that Canada is the second largest country in the world with climate ranging from arctic to boreal rainforests, or I could apologize that I haven’t seen a Canadian weather report for several years, or I could tell him the latest Vancouver weather report from my dad, but it’s easier for me to just give the answer I know he expects because it’s in the ministry mandated foreigner dialog book under the heading CANADIANS: “Canada is really cold. It’s probably minus 30 right now.”

And then I just can’t stop myself: “We use dog sleds,” I elaborate—going maybe a little too far because I know I’ll never see him again. “My mother lives in an igloo.” That last one I got from another Canadian.

He looks like he’s believing it. I comfort myself by imagining how this will spice things up the next time he chats up a Canadian. I smile and hope he imagines me majestically in command of a dogsled and lashing a band of howling Malamutes.

He segues from climatic to geographical: “Canada is near America, right?”

(“WTF?” you ask. “How can anyone not know this?”)

What’s worse is that any Canadian in a small Chinese town (of less than 2 million) will hear this one all_the_time. I -personally- have heard it enough to concoct a noteworthy insight or ten, here goes:

As I understand it, and speaking as a guy who taught in a few Chinese schools, global geography curriculum for secondary Chinese students rarely imparts lasting familiarity with maps outside China’s immediate borders and territorial claims. And while he’s surely seen a North American map, lessons in geography get diluted by mind-numbing statistics and other numerical abstractions. Basically they have to memorize a bunch of geo-economic trivia. So while your typical Chinese interviewer may know that the GDP of Germany is the highest in Europe (because, after all, they DO make great cars), do not ever expect him or her to be able to differentiate it from France on a map.

And really, even if he did cover North American geography in class, the Chinese are just like us: who needs to remember all that useless crap teachers make us memorize—it’s not like they’re gonna do some US-Canadian cross border shopping, right?

Or: nicotine man might just be wandering along a chain of interests to draw out the conversation and test my Chinese. Basically stacking up questions until I crack, which seems to happen a lot. I suspect the Chinese get a comforting wave of existential relief when they hear a westerner screw up the grammar or fumble for vocabulary. Call me paranoid.

Or he might just be a nice chatty guy asking stuff he already knows to keep things friendly.

Anyway, I give my stock answer: the now ritual reply that I’ve been using since I mastered the Chinese grammar for weather, comparison, and relative position during my first year. “Yes,” I smile, “Canada is north of America, just like Russia is north of China. We have a long border together…” Spreading my arms as if to show that the border is about 4 feet long… “So Canada is the same latitude as Russia, and China is the same latitude as America. That’s why American weather is like Chinese weather, and Canada is really cold just like Russia.

Pause.

Then, from him: “Do you like to drink?”

5 Comments

  1. “What do you think of Hitler?” Hahahaha

    good one~~

    was this man talking with you in english?

  2. All in Chinese.

  3. I laughed so hard I peed myself a little reading this one.

  4. The farther away from China I get, the funnier it is.

  5. Hysterically funny but…I do not live in an igloo.

    Karlis’s mom

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