Sunday, May 31, 2009

Missing the point

One of the most depressing moments in my experience of teaching in universities here came a few years ago, when I was discussing preparations for the Olympics with a group of sophomores.

We got on to the issues of security and policing, and I suggested that extra manpower might be needed.

The first rather naive response was that the entire police force from nearby cities such as Tianjin would be bussed over here. ("What - all of them? Isn't Tianjin hosting some Olympic events as well? And don't you think there's some danger of a crimewave, if there are no police left there at all?" No, actually, I rather liked that idea: I pictured a mass mah jong tournament between the police forces of the two cities.)

Then several people suggested we could just use the army.


Now, there's a place for the armed services in the security arrangements, of course - specialist rapid-response units to deal with bomb disposal or hostage-taking incidents, that kind of thing. But putting the military out on the streets for regular policing duties, maintaining public order? That really doesn't look good. It makes it look as though your government is so unpopular that there is a constant threat of riot or revolt, and that the only way it can control its own people is by the threat of armed force. (They did in fact station quite a number of members of the armed forces along the main routes north from the city centre to the Olympic Green - but at least they were in ceremonial uniform, and only carrying sidearms, not rifles or machine-guns. Even so, I felt it created a slightly creepy, threatening atmosphere.)

The majority of these kids, alas, had grown up in complete ignorance of what happened here in 1989. They didn't know that the murder of civilians by the PLA is still what Beijing and Tiananmen Square is best known for around most of the world. They didn't understand the resonances of deploying soldiers on the streets of your capital city, didn't recognise the signals that it sends to people.


That, for me, is one of the most terrible things about this week's anniversary. The Party's propaganda on the subject has been largely successful. Today, most people in this country probably neither know nor care very much about the 1989 crackdown; even those that know something about it mostly fail to understand why it's so important.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Film List - Quiz!

For this month's 'Film List', I thought I'd throw out a challenge to try to identify these (fun, but mostly, I admit, somewhat obscure) film quotations. Recognising the film they come from is, of course, the key thing; but you can give yourself a bonus if you can name the actor who spoke the line, and a highly-deserved double-bonus if you can name the character.

There is also a mystery link - which may be of some help, if you can get one or two of them straight off.



"I don't know how to run a newspaper. I just try everything I can think of."


"In 1966, I went down to Greenwich Village, New York City, to a rock club called 'Electric Banana'. Don't look for it. It's not there any more."


"Sometimes, the spaghetti likes to be alone."


"I'm a Derek. Dereks don't run."


"If I win, I get to take you home. If you win, you go home with me."


"Who would cross the Bridge of Death
Must answer me these questions three
'Ere the other side he see."


"Moisture is the essence of wetness, and wetness is the essence of beauty."


"Of course he's willing to die. You think we do this kind of work because we're scared to die?"


"The saddest thing in life is wasted talent."


"That wasn't no miss, Vargas. That was just to turn you 'round, so I don't have to shoot you in the back."



I'll post the answers in a week or two (probably in the 'comments' below). Good luck.



Update: I've now posted the answers here.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Something for the living room

I was invited a little while ago to submit an occasional article for one of the state-run newspapers here. I was not enthused - despite being encouraged that it was "just like blogging" and that I "could write about just about anything [I] like". Yes, well. There is at least one topic I knew I wasn't going to be allowed to mention this year.

And I felt I wouldn't be able to resist the temptation to write frivolous but coded pieces about how, perhaps, for example, I had recently spent a weekend shopping around Beijing's antiques markets, looking for a nice example of Tang Dynasty pottery like the one above, because, you know, I really feel that I need a nice big elephant in my living room.

The weekly haiku

A staleness takes hold:
no longer home, but prison.
Five years in same place!


Yes, I'm definitely beginning to think it may be time for a move. I covet a siheyuan. I can't afford one, but - goddammit! - I covet one. I must investigate what the lower end of the market has to offer.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

War on Chinglish (9)

All robbers are thieves, but not all thieves are robbers. (And 'stealer', though it does exist, is just about never used.)


The Chinese seem to be completely unaware of these useful distinctions. You find the word pickpocket (a stealthy thief who tries to remove things from your bag or your pockets without you noticing) occasionally, but burglar (a thief who breaks into a building to steal things) is completely unknown; and, in general, robbery is much more commonly used than theft (while burglary is never seen), and the perpetrators of such crimes are invariably called robbers rather than thieves. The difference is simple enough (and I'm sure there must be similar variations in the Chinese lexicon): robbery involves confrontation and threats or actual violence, whereas theft can occur without the property owner's knowledge - robbery is a kind of theft, but theft+violence.

We also sometimes run into problems about how to use the verb forms with direct and indirect objects - we steal (or rob, or burgle) something (from someone): He stole a watch from me. He robbed some money from the bank.

It's not really conceivable that a person could ever be the direct object of one of these verbs* (well, we have another specialised term for 'stealing people' - kidnapping!).
[This image from The Chinglish Adventures Of Chairman Mao, a blog by an American English teacher who was working in China last year, and has recently visited us here on Froogville and left a couple of comments.]


If I'm really going to be thorough on this topic, I suppose I should mention the following points as well:

With steal, you can use a direct object only (the thing stolen); but with rob, you always need to specify the victim/source of the stolen property as well; and with burgle, the lone direct object is usually the place stolen from, not the thing stolen: They burgled her apartment last week.

And thieve is archaic, and rarely used. It is applied to the activity or profession of being a thief in general, not to a particular act of theft (and is thus usually intransitive, used without objects): He's been thieving again. He thieves for a living.

* Ah - the awkward distinction that catches out ESL learners! Rob (and burgle, though more rarely) can also take the victim as a direct object (instead of the thing stolen); steal cannot: Someone robbed Jeff. They're robbing the bank. They've burgled me.

Thus, if we want to create a passive construction, with the crime victim becoming the subject of the sentence, we can say

They are being robbed.

or

We've been burgled.

but with steal, we have to use the more roundabout

I've had something stolen (from me).


It's a little tricky, I know, but do your best.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Dark humour

The most intriguing revelation about the events of 1989 from Zhao Ziyang's just-published memoirs: "Wen was a martyr to haemorrhoids throughout those days."


"Hey, buddy, is this the right way to Vladivostok? I think we're a bit lost."



Just to prove that it is possible to make jokes about anything......

And please, I hope no-one will take offence at this. I do not in any way wish to make light of the events of which we commemorate the 20th anniversary next week. In fact, I would venture that few foreigners - except those who were here in Beijing at the time - feel such a strong emotional tie to those events as I do, or feel quite such intense sorrow and outrage about it as I do.

However, it is human nature to make jokes even about the most terrible and serious matters - indeed, perhaps especially about the most terrible and serious matters. Such joking is not intended to belittle events and topics of such magnitude (indeed, as with the second one here, there is often an element of satire that makes valuable points about an issue, though in a seemingly flippant way). If it diminishes or displaces our fiercer emotions - our anger and compassion, our horror and disgust - it does so only to a limited extent, and only for a short while. I don't know if there are any more elaborate and convincing psychological explanations for the phenomenon of the 'disaster joke' ("Why didn't Superman save those people trapped in the Twin Towers?" "Because he's in a f***ing wheelchair!"), but it has always seemed to me that they serve as a kind of catharsis, a way for us to start to come to grips with events that seem too enormous, too appalling for us to assimilate into our experience. I'm not saying that we should let go of our sorrow and outrage, but, as with the related emotion of grief - something we've all experienced through more personal bereavements within the circle of our family and friends - we have to find ways to temper these violent emotions. We cannot feel that intensely about something continuously, forever; if we do, those emotions destroy only ourselves. 'Bad taste' jokes are a safety valve for releasing some of that pent-up emotion, rendering it less harmful to us.

But we do not need to lose those emotions altogether. We need to learn how to preserve those feelings without brooding on them excessively, how to summon them when appropriate, how to channel them into achieving something worthwhile.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Still grappling with the censors

I have managed only very intermittent access to my blogs - or to the Internet at all - over the past 8 or 10 days. I fear the crapness of my computer and my Internet connection may be as much or more to blame than the tiresome meddling of the censorious knob-twiddlers down at Kafka Central: I tend to be able to function Webwise late at night or early in the morning, but not during "working hours".

I may now have found a way round this.

New computer? Expensive VPN? Blogging via e-mail? Staying up until 2am every night? Place your bets.

Eventually it will probably be a little of each of these. For now, mostly the latter.

Take me to Funky Town!

My last couple of sessions in the recording studio, we've been making the tapes to accompany a rather better than average textbook series. But, alas, although the general content is fairly strong (and, mostly, Chinglish-free), there is still a worrying lack of attention to the basic copy-editing: our script was full of small typos.

One of the most common was that in the 'GRAMMAR' section of each chapter, the sub-heading for the new grammar function to be covered was almost invariably labelled 'FUNCITON'. To a native speaker, this is a pretty glaring error; but for most Chinese, it seems, it is invisible.

After the 8th or 10th instance of this, I found myself picturing a sleepy hamlet in the north Midlands.....

Monday, May 25, 2009

Bon mot for the week

"Tact is for people who aren't witty enough to be sarcastic."


(Seen on a fridge magnet....)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Staring at the sun

A couple of months back, my blog-friend JES mentioned the Bob Dylan lyric "Look at the sun sinkin' like a ship" in one of his regular Friday poetry posts.

That got me to thinking of one of my favourite expressions about the going down of the sun, in the third line of this famous Greek lyric (yes, sorry, showing off the Classical education again).


Poem XXXIV ('Heraclitus')

Εἰπέ τις, Ἡράκλειτε, τεὸν μόρον ἐς δέ με δάκρυ
ἤγαγεν ἐμνήσθην δ᾿ ὁσσάκις ἀμφότεροι
ἠέλιον λέσχῃ κατεδύσαμεν. ἀλλὰ σὺ μέν που,
ξεῖν᾿ Ἁλικαρνησεῦ, τετράπαλαι σποδιή,
αἱ δὲ τεαὶ ζώουσιν ἀηδόνες, ᾗσιν ὁ πάντων
ἁρπακτὴς Ἀίδης οὐκ ἐπὶ χεῖρα βαλεῖ.

Callimachus (c. 310-240 BCE)


A famous Victorian translation of this follows below. It's a telling illustration of the conciseness of the Greek language that Cory's version is pretty nearly
twice as long. The phrase I so love - ἠέλιον λέσχῃ κατεδύσαμεν - is very nicely rendered by him, but the original has a forceful simplicity about it: "we sank the sun with talk". ('Nightingales' - ἀηδόνες - is generally taken to be the title of a book of poems by the writer's deceased friend, Heraclitus; but I've always preferred to think that it is just an evocative metaphor for poems or poetry. Perhaps Cory thought so too, since he didn't capitalise it.)


Heraclitus

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead;
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed;
I wept as I remembered how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

And now that thou are lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,
Still are they pleasant voices, thy nightingales awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

William Johnson Cory (1823-1892)


This in turn reminded me of this, the last poem from from the excellent Oxford Book of Short Poems (the title and opening line are, of course, taken from Wittgenstein's magnum opus, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus).


Tractatus
(for Aidan Higgins)

'The world is everything that is the case',
From the fly giving up in the coal-shed
To the Winged Victory of Samothrace.
Give blame, praise, to the fumbling God
Who hides, shame-facedly, His aged face;
Whose light retires behind its veil of cloud.

The world, though, is also so much more -
Everything that is the case imaginatively.
Tacitus believed mariners could hear
The sun sinking into the western sea;
And who would question that titanic roar,
The steam rising, wherever the edge may be?

Derek Mahon (1941-)


And this latter always puts me in mind of a favourite cartoon I saw in Punch magazine during the 1970s:

Two cavemen are standing on a cliff top, watching the sun set far out to sea. One says to the other: "There must be a hell of a lot of those things down there by now."


It all depends on how you look at things.


Friday, May 22, 2009

The caged singer sings his last (a farewell[??] haiku for the week)

Slow, much, much too slow.
Censors win by accident.
Drowning in treacle.


I have been without an effective Internet connection for most of this week.

All the proxies I've relied upon in the past now seem to be failing me. (Well, all but one - and I'm not going to mention which one that is, for fear of jinxing it. And alas, it is not one that allows me to 'sign in' to sites like Blogger.) Even the supposedly censor-proof Tor has been letting me down - although I fear that might be mainly because of the antiquity of my computer and the slowness of my Internet connection rather than the new thoroughness of the government's filtering techniques. I've always found it a bit dicey because of connection speed issues, even when the rest of the Chinese Internet is functioning somewhere near its best - which, of course, it isn't at the moment. When there's this much blocking and monitoring going on, and this much huffing-and-puffing by China-based netizens to try to circumvent the blocking, the network gets hopelessly overloaded and everything starts grinding to a halt. Even my Yahoo mail accounts, accessed without Tor via Internet Explorer, are sometimes taking minutes to download a new page..... and are frequently freezing or crashing altogether. This has become an all too familiar problem during my years in China, and I am convinced it is mostly an indirect rather than a direct effect of the government's censorship efforts - an unhappy accident.

However, I have also found that a couple of web-based proxies recommended to me by friends as being easy and efficacious in the current Internet environment in China have refused to load for me (when I didn't have Tor or Firefox running, and only had one or two windows open). This is rather alarming, and makes me suspect that perhaps I am being more specifically targeted for interference by the powers-that-be (as I am fairly sure did happen for a while around the time of the Olympic torch relay protests last year). I notice, for example, that while my Tor connection doesn't usually have much problem delivering other Blogspot sites to my desktop, it regularly trips up over my own dear Froogville and Barstool Blues. And I've had a terrible time trying to get into Blogger. I haven't yet tried using another computer; I just haven't had the time. (Last year, an IT geek of my acquaintance suggested that perhaps my Net access was being monitored on the basis of my home Internet account. However, a little experimentation revealed that I was having exactly the same problems with wi-fi networks in neighbourhood coffee shops; yet my old laptop still worked fine on my home connection. It would seem therefore that the censors can perhaps target an individual computer. A spooky thought!)

So, I fear I must take a bloggy 'holiday' for a while. I have been working like a dog for the past couple of weeks, and suffering the first ominous signs of summer tummy troubles. I just don't have the time for spending hours piddling around on the computer as well - endlessly crashing and restarting it, Googling for other proxy options, waiting around for long, long minutes to see if requested webpages will get 'timed out'.

And most of the time, they are indeed getting 'timed out'. And most of the time, each of these 'time outs' seems to me like another victory for the censor, another unworthy victory for injustice and oppression. And that makes me very, very angry. And, since there's not really very much I can do about it, that anger soon morphs into depression. I have quite enough prompts for depression in my life as it is - especially around this time of year - without staring frustratedly at an unresponsive computer screen for hours every day.

So - damn it - I'm going to throw in the towel.



Only for a while, you understand. I will be back. Oh, yes - sooner than you think. I am looking into VPN options. And when I get that sorted, these bastards are going to be SORRY.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Chinese condom brands

Last night, at the checkout of one of my local 7/11's, I thought I spotted a new one.

Small One, I thought it said. What a charmingly frank innovation in the world of condom marketing!

Alas, no. The box was on its side, and some way away from me. It actually said Salome - which is still fairly inventive, but not groundbreaking.

One of the most popular brands around at the moment appears to be the more prosaically aspirational Strong Man (yes, they're all named in English!).

And another I've spotted recently is Roman (yes, I know the Americans have had Trojans for years, but I rather suspect we have Russell Crowe's Gladiator to thank for this in China).

The leading manufacturer over here seems to be the Japanese Okamoto company (responsible for such intriguing brand concepts as 'Skinless Skin' and 'Beyond 7'). For cheap laughs, though, they are easily outperformed by their leading domestic rival, which rejoices in the name of Jissbon (pronounced - at least by sniggering foreigners - 'Jizz....').


I also find it curious that the packaging always seems to portray Caucasian rather than Asian couples. I wonder if this wasn't originally intended to stigmatize and discourage casual sex: "This is a Western vice that we Chinese should not engage in." In fact, of course, it only serves to glamourise it. All things Western seem to be seen as terribly fashionable and desirable here these days. I was reminded of the classic example of an advertisement for birth control in Africa - I think it occurs in Evelyn Waugh's Black Mischief, but was inspired by a real-life example - which had quite the opposite of the intended effect: its African readers saw a man with a modern home and a full belly but only one child as a loser.

[An aside: when I first came here, there were quite a lot of vending machines around - not in bars or toilets, but just bolted to the wall here and there on the sides of the street. They invariably featured rather arousing photographs of very beautiful Western couples embracing each other - no nudity, but much passion. Alas, these all disappeared after a year or two. I gather that they were being broken into too often - not for the money, but for the condoms themselves. Hmm, yes.... there's another thing: never having investigated them myself, I don't know how they were supposed to operate. The highest value coin in China is only 1 RMB, and even those are confined to the more 'sophisticated' cities like Shanghai; you hardly ever see them in Beijing.]


War on Chinglish (8a)

This is not really an example of 'Chinglish' as such, but I thought it a useful and necessary footnote to last week's observations on the prevalence among the Chinese of using 'Of course' to give an affirmative reply to a question.

I led off that post by saying, "It's OK to say 'Yes'."

I stand by that. A simple 'Yes' is far preferable to the hugely irritating (and borderline rude) 'Of course' in most cases.

However, replying with a single word in English - particularly replying to a sequence of questions in such a minimally communicative way - is also unusual, and apt to seem rude.


This is one of the key points I have tried to get across to students I have coached for various English speaking exams: don't make it into an interrogation. The examiner is giving you opportunities to talk, to show off how good your English is. Use them. Try to answer with a complete sentence every time. Sometimes - if the question gives scope for it - you can even attempt a mini-paragraph of three or four sentences strung together.

Far too many students, however, retreat into sullen monosyllables - like seasoned but dumb criminals afraid of the wily policeman prompting them to compromise their alibi; -

"What did you do last night?"

"Nothing."

"You must have done something."

"Stayed home."

"And what did you do at home?"

"Watched TV."

"Which TV programme did you watch?"

"Football game."

"Oh, what was the score?"

[D'Oh!!]


Always try to answer with a complete sentence.

If a simple negative or affirmative seems to be enough (and trust me, it isn't), you should at least use what we usually term a 'short-form answer' - i.e., in addition to saying 'Yes' or 'No', you repeat the verb (or at least, the auxiliary part of it) in your answer, and omit the noun or replace it with a pronoun.

If the nice man (or lady) asks you, "Have you seen Titanic?", don't just say "Yes."

Say, "Yes, I have."

Or, "Yes, I've seen it."

Or (don't get too carried away now, baby steps and all that; but this really isn't so much of a stretch) try to provide a bit more information, try to build up your answer into a full sentence.


"Yes, I watched that on DVD a couple of years ago. I really enjoyed it."


There, that's no so hard, is it? Give it a try next time.


[Note: Most foreign examiners have got used to the fact that everyone in China has seen Titanic, that everyone liked it, and that no-one has very much else to say about it. For now, let us not worry about trying to form and express worthwhile opinions on the film such as, 'Well, the CGI was a bit dodgy in places. The Billy Zane character was ludicrously two-dimensional. And I don't believe there's any historical basis for that officer shooting a passenger. And surely Kate Winslet would have died of hypothermia long before the ship sank?" That can wait for an 'Advanced Class'.]

Monday, May 18, 2009

Three timely bon mots

"You see these dictators on their pedestals, surrounded by the bayonets of their soldiers and the truncheons of their police. Yet in their hearts there is unspoken - unspeakable! - fear. They are afraid of words and thoughts! Words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home, all the more powerful because they are forbidden. These terrify them. A little mouse - a little tiny mouse! - of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest potentates are thrown into panic."

Winston Churchill (1874-1965)


"The fact is that censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates, in the end, the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion."

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998)


"You can cage the singer but not the song."

Harry Belafonte (1927- )


This last is perhaps particularly appropriate to the case of Zhao Ziyang, the leading 'reformer' who was purged as General Secretary of the CCP as a result of the TAM protests and spent the next 16 years - until his death - under house arrest. His memoir, Prisoner of the State, secretly recorded on a series of tapes in the early 2000s and smuggled out to the West, is finally about to be published.


P.S. I've posted another in similar vein over on the Barstool.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

It begins....

The anniversary is now less than 3 weeks away, and the powers-that-be are getting panicky.


As of yesterday, Blogspot is once again comprehensively blocked in China.

And this year (unlike last year), the Kafka Boys have remembered to block Blogger as well, so posting to your blog also poses problems.

They even seem to be managing to block via Tor, which I had always thought to be the most impregnable of proxy options (although, at present, I still seem to be able to circumvent this by changing the routing to adopt a 'new identity' every once in a while). This is very worrying.


6/4 - the anniversary of which this government dares not speak.

The anniversary of (depending on which view of history you adhere to)...

EITHER

The necessary suppression of some unimportant counter-revolutionary rioting instigated by a handful of troublemakers (probably with the backing of the CIA)

OR

The crushing of the largest spontaneous mass protest movement in history, involving the murder of hundreds of innocent civilians by troops marauding through the capital out of control



Now, usually I'm all in favour of fairly weighing all the competing claims of alternative interpretations of history. But in this case, there's really not much of a competition.


The CCP's obstinate insistence on its Cloud-Cuckoo-Land version of 'history' makes it look ridiculous in the eyes of the rest of the world and brings shame on a proud nation.

It really is time to come clean, boys. Or have you been lying so long, you no longer even know what the truth is?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Pick of The Barstool

Continuing my quixotic attempt to divert readers to my other blog....


In this post, I managed to combine a notice on a new bar opening in my neighbourhood with a reminiscence of my most recent romance, a sour observation on alternative medicine, and a complaint about the occasional shortcomings of the English lexicon - all in the space of 280 words. Not bad! Please give it a look.


A couple of close runners-up for this week's recommendation, too:

Fellow Beijingers may find this an amusing in-joke, or this a rather too horribly plausible business proposition.

The weekly haiku

A drab dome of haze;
Grey days shrink the wearied soul,
Pining for the sun.


Yup, shitty weather in Beijing again the last couple of days. It's been gorgeous for most of the last month, but when it turns drab, it turns really drab.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

An embarrassing admission

I have never been much of a fan of computer games. However, I confess I have occasionally succumbed to their allure, and found them as dangerously addictive as much of the rest of the human race. Luckily, I have the strength of will - and the breadth of other interests - than I can fairly readily step back from the addiction. And I do not expose myself to such temptations very often.

I think their particular attraction for me lies in their challenge to my analytical and creative powers. I have gone through brief periods of similar obsession with board games - particularly with the more elaborate military strategy games that attempt to recreate famous historical campaigns. I would spend hours reading and pondering the rules, working out how to win (and only rarely feeling the need to play a 'practice game' or two against myself, to test my theories). It wasn't usually all that hard, since game designers seem to be focused more on throwing in as much historical detail as possible, rather than considering the statistical significance of the weightings of the various factors at play in the game. (I recall once playing a representation of The Peloponnesian War, in which it soon became very apparent that the only possible winning strategy was to throw all available troops against each other outside Epidamnus on the Adriatic coast - because control of this city secured a huge trade revenue stream, far more than could be derived from any other colonial possessions, and could thus rapidly secure a massive dominance for the side that managed to hold on to it. This was not how the real war played out, but in the game.....)

Computer games, I suppose, have the added draw of a highly adrenalised real-time experience that sharpens up your co-ordination and reflexes. Also, they tend to offer rather broader and more flexible environments and scenarios, where there is more scope for your imagination: I quite enjoy thinking up improbable or outlandish stratagems to try; and I am, as often as not, disappointed when I discover that the game's designers hadn't thought to accommodate them.

Anyway, as I say, I've never really spent much time on computer games. But, when I first moved to China, I was worried that my extreme penury would leave me with not much to do in the evenings. And I had recently become the owner of a laptop computer for the first time. So, I did buy a few computer games to bring with me. One of them was Return to Castle Wolfenstein (then, a relatively recent release, I think), a canny blend of the original classic sci-fi demon shoot-em-up Doom (which I'd spent many an unhappy hour puzzling my way through on my first desktop computer, when I was a law student) and the hugely successful WWII Normandy landings game Medal of Honor - Nazis and demons: a winning combination!

Furthermore, I discovered, there was a titillating infusion of sex appeal in this game: the eponymous fortress/secret weapons lab/portal-to-the-evil-dimension where most the action was set was guarded by a troop of slinky, leather-clad maidens known as 'The Elite'. Yes, you could get your arse whooped by a couple of dozen Nazi Emma Peels - how exciting is that?!

I perused the instruction booklet in some detail (a habit I suppose I'd carried over from my earlier experience with board-based strategy games; although, in fact, computer game booklets rarely tell you anything of any use at all in playing the game, outside of the basic control functions).

In the course of this reading, I noticed that a "motion-capture actress" was credited - presumably the model for the dangerously acrobatic Elite guards. I was sufficiently intrigued to do a little Googling, and.....

Yes, it was none other than last weekend's 'fantasy girlfriend', the dauntingly sportif Danelle Folta - willowy Playboy model and endurance athlete.

That is how I became aware of the very striking Ms Folta, a lady who would otherwise have passed completely under my radar.

Funnily enough, I never did get around to playing the Wolfenstein game (although you can find more information about it here, if this is the kind of thing that interests you.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Gender Divide

Via Moonrat, I discovered this the other day - the resurrection of a long out-of-print children's book, I'm Glad I'm A Boy! I'm Glad I'm A Girl! It's less than 40 years old - unnerving to think that gender-stereotyping was so rigid and unself-conscious as recently as that. (Follow the link to view the whole book.)
I found this one below to be one of the less objectionable juxtapositions.

It reminded me of a favourite line - on relationships and matrimony - from one of those roundups of 'Cute things kids say' that was circulating on the Internet a few years ago: "If you're going to get married, it's important that you should like some of the same things. Like, if you like watching sports.... she should like it that you like watching sports. And bring you chips'n'dip."


Ah, but where is a girl like that to be found???

War on Chinglish (8)

It's OK to say 'Yes'.


Unfortunately, most Chinese seem to have developed the habit of invariably answering questions with 'Of course'.


Now, this is possible. But it is used fairly sparingly, usually reserved for occasions when we want to reassure people about something or express our enthusiasm in responding to a request to do something, or a suggestion, or an invitation. "Can you get that report finished by Friday?" "Of course." "Would you like to come for dinner at my home next weekend?" "Of course."

When replying to a simple question - such as "Did you know the meeting has been put back to Friday?" or "Do you like Manchester United?" - saying "Of course!" can sound somewhat abrupt, even rude. Especially when you do it all the time.

It seems to imply: "This is really obvious. You must be a complete idiot to ask me that."


In a word, DON'T.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Surely not?

Sorry - many of you will have seen this before. I have been meaning to share it for quite a while, but never quite got around to it.

I think I first came across it about 6 months ago, labelled as being from a news report about a victim of one of last season's hurricanes in Florida; although, in fact it seems he had suffered a house fire in California. (Yes, this is all over the Internet!)

Since there seems to be no other reference online to this curious surname, I think we can assume that this was an inspired practical joke.

I wonder if Bart will ever use it on The Simpsons?

Monday, May 11, 2009

A China paradox

(One of the many!)


Bread (at least, the crappy pre-packaged stuff you buy in the supermarket) will always grow spots of mould within a day or two (sometimes, at this time of year, within 24 hours).

Yet milk never goes off. (Must be the melamine, huh?)

A Chinese bon mot for the week

走為上策。
(Zǒu wéi shàng cè)

"If all else fails, retreat."

Tan Daoji (executed 436 AD); a celebrated general of the Liu Song dynasty; one of the many loyal and capable public servants in Chinese history to have incurred the suspicion or resentment of his Emperor and been unjustly killed (really, there are a lot of such incidents). He is said to have had Thirty-Six Stratagems, of which this was the last (often wrongly ascribed to Sun Tzu and his overrated Art of War). It's quite a common saying in China today: "Of the Thirty-Six Stratagems, running away is best."

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The feeling of Sunday afternoons

The daughter of one of my neighbours a few floors down has been learning the piano for the past three or four years. Her progress in that time has been slow, although she has moved on from Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star to the largo from Dvorak's New World. Her practising fairly regularly wakes me up, when I am attempting a lie-in at the weekends, but I find it impossible to rouse any resentment. There is something deeply comforting about the sound of a piano afar off, even when played poorly.

I wonder if my particular affinity for the instrument can be traced to the period when we were living with one of my grandmothers after the failure of my father's business (he was one of the many people in Britain in the 50s and 60s who were conned into paying an inappropriately large sum of money for a franchised petrol station on a road that was about to be bypassed). I was not yet four years old, and most of my earliest - and perhaps happiest - memories date from that time. My granny had an old upright piano in the dark, dusty (otherwise largely unused) 'parlour', and I would spend hours banging away on it, untutored, and mostly unsupervised. It must have sounded dreadful, but I was in heaven.

And I think I catch glimpses of that lost world of innocence whenever I hear a piano now - perhaps especially when I hear a piano played badly.

Here are two favourite poems that touch on the emotional resonance of music and the nostalgia for childhood. For reasons beyond the tinny early morning tinkling of my teenaged neighbour, I think, such wistful reflections on the past, and on my distant childhood in particular, tend to overtake me on a Sunday. Perhaps because it is the only day on which I have time to stop and think...

The first of today's poetry selections is by Lawrence, who I've quoted on here a number of times before.


Piano

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings back home, with the winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast down
In the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930)


And this is a great favourite I had long feared 'lost'. I hadn't seen it in nearly thirty years, and could only remember the barest outlines of it, a half-phrase or two, and a not-very-confident identification of the author. My estimable blog-friend JES, who has of late become my 'personal search engine', was able to locate the full text online for me - something I had often tried and failed to do. 'Thank you' is inadequate. I absolutely love this piece.


Suburban Dream

Walking the suburbs in the afternoon
In summer when the idle doors stand open
And the air flows through the rooms
Fanning the curtain hems,

You wander through a cool elysium
Of women, schoolgirls, children, garden talks,
With a schoolboy here and there
Conning his history book.

The men are all away in offices,
Committee-rooms, laboratories, banks,
Or pushing cotton goods
In Wick or Ilfracombe.

The massed unanimous absence liberates
The light keys of the piano and sets free
Chopin and everlasting youth,
Now, with the masters gone.

And all things turn to images of peace,
The boy curled over his book, the young girl poised
On the path as if beguiled
By the silence of a wood.


It is a child's dream of a grown-up world;
But soon the brazen evening clocks will bring
The tramp of feet and brisk
Fanfare of motor horns
And the masters come.

Edwin Muir (1887-1959)


Saturday, May 09, 2009

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Danelle Folta

Amongst the adjectives used to describe women that are most likely to arouse my interest, I would say, are lithe, taut, lissom, and sometimes even rangy. These days, of course, 'fit' has become a - barely respectable or respectful - term of general approbation for an attractive woman; but I tend to be attracted towards women who are more literally fit; I like a girl who works out, a girl with a little bit of muscle and very little fat, a girl with a flat stomach and lean, well-shaped legs. That's a large part of the reason I've always had such a fascination with dancers, I think.

And Ms Folta is one of the most formidably well-conditioned women I have ever encountered. And, ah yes, tall redheads* are another recurring weakness of mine - my kryptonite, if you will. And, oh my god, cheekbones you could slice bacon on! (I find her features a little reminiscent of the marvellous Greta Garbo, the greatest of all my great swoons of yesteryear.) Yes, dangerously close to the 'ideal' woman.

I gather from my online researches that, although American, she spent much of her early working life doing catwalk modelling in Europe, and for some years gamely resisted invitations to go nude for the likes of Playboy. She did eventually agree to become a Playmate in 1995, but she doesn't seem to have done a great deal of 'glamour' work subsequently (and certainly none of the really naughty stuff) - although it is rather difficult to find pictures of her in which she is not in an embarrassing state of undress (and I don't want this to become that kind of blog!). Prude that I am, I have tracked down some more decorous photographs to share with you.
No, it would appear that she is a feistily intelligent and fiercely determined lady, and, rather than follow the typical post-Playmate career options of B-movies/soft porn/celebrity's girlfriend, she decided to promote and develop the Playboy brand through using sport to support worthy or charitable causes. She founded the Playboy X-treme Team - a group of Playboy models who take part in events such as beach volleyball tournaments (of course!), mountain-biking races, and some extreme endurance competitions. Most notoriously, she led Playboy teams in the Borneo (2000) and Fiji (2002) stagings of the gruelling Eco-Challenge competition - during the latter of which she nearly died after contracting a particularly nasty foot infection.

How did I come to learn of Ms Folta - since I have never in my life read Playboy (well, hardly ever), nor had I previously heard of the Eco-Challenge events? Well, that, perhaps, is a story for another day....


* The most recent lady to capture my heart, however, is a petite - and not conspicuously sporty - blonde. So, it just goes to show that I don't really have any single 'type'.

Delivery

I was lounging on the stoop of my favourite bar the other day when a moped puttered into view, weaving manically through the throng of pedestrians on this busy little street. A large plastic crate precariously tethered to the parcel rack contained two plastic bags full of water. And fish.

Yes, it was the fish delivery guy.

He stopped at a restaurant a few doors up, and as he picked up one of his water sacks I could see that at least two of the fish in it were belly-up.

Fresh dead fish!


I had expected (well, half-expected; well, hoped...) to hear a violent altercation within the restaurant, to see the crestfallen delivery guy re-emerge still carrying his fish (or at least, the dead ones) - order rejected. But no. He walked out within a minute or so, a small roll of cash in his hand and a smile of satisfaction in a job well done on his face.

It is, alas, horribly common, almost ubiquitous in China for restaurants (and supermarkets) to have 'live fish' displays in large fishtanks (often in the entrance lobby, or even outside on the street)..... in which most of the fish are dead. Sometimes, I think, they even do that thing where they invite punters to choose the fish they'd like to eat.

"Oh, yeah, that floater on the surface. The really puffy, discoloured one, with the shreds of rotting flesh falling off it. That's the one for me!"

It's amazing that no-one seems to find this offputting, or, if they do, that no-one seems to make any effective complaint about it. (Public Health inspectors? Surely you jest!)

I'd never seen a delivery service like this before. But it's really not likely to help the problem, is it? I mean, 8 large fish in a fairly small, sealed plastic bag, with no air space in it..... on a baking hot day! It's a wonder any of them survived the journey.


The only sign of concern about the dead fish phenomenon I can recall hearing about in this country was a few years ago, when it was reported that some supermarkets had come up with the ingenious idea of attaching small polystyrene floats to the dorsal fins of their fish to prevent them going wrong-side-up. I kid you not.

It is a strange country indeed.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Pick of Barstool Blues

I am a trifle concerned that companion-blog, Round-The-World Barstool Blues, is getting rather left behind by its swaggering big brother (Froogville's readership nearly doubled of late!). I have always felt a close emotional attachment to my 'other' blog; and, although it may be an even more 'personal' outpouring than this one, and hence perhaps of rather less 'general interest', I do think that some of my best - and most amusing - writing is to be found over there (and I have been particularly prolific just lately).

I am therefore going to institute an occasional series of 'Please read this post!' recommendations for The Barstool (as I usually call it, for short).


There's been so much in the last week or so, it's difficult to know what to select (I'm rather fond of the evolving series on 'Solutions' - snapshots of the rather odd strategies my rather odd friends and I adopt for dealing with the daily challenges of life here....). However, I suppose the most important recent post must be my dissertation on the etiquette of buying rounds. Please give it a read, and let me know your thoughts.

Handy

Did anybody else in Beijing have their water coming out of the taps rust-brown and palpably gritty all day yesterday? I'm sure it can't have been just me, or even just my building.

It seemed imprudent to attempt to use the washing-machine, and I dread to think how silted up my shower water-heater may have become (it was making the most horrendous noises all day).

And today, of course, waking to an 84° C indoor temperature, I found that my shower had completely ceased to function.

I divined that the problem was probably that a 'filter' (fitted deep within the neck of the shower hose, inaccessible) had become clogged with sand, and contrived to remedy the situation by punching a hole through it with a screwdriver. (The screwdriver, of course, became obstinately stuck in the ruptured filter, and I went through agonies of, "How am I going to explain this to my landlord...?" ) I did eventually manage to extract it, and I am happy to report that my coolness-and-cleanliness option is restored. Phew!

Living in China teaches you a whole new dimension of D-I-Y.

Haiku for the week

The warm weather comes,
banishing sleep and comfort -
sweatbox apartment!


I have a digital thermometer display on the clock beside my bed. Every morning when I wake, I glance at it to discover that the temperature inside my apartment is already in the 80s. And this is by 7am or 8am! Even with a fan on, this isn't very comfortable. One of the disadvantages of living on the south-east corner of the top floor, under a flat, tar-covered roof! The next four months are going to be like this - and worse. Time to consider a move....

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Novelty in the recording studio?!

Most of the recording work I do squelches the brain through endlessly rehashing the same tired old scripts. This week, however, we have been lucky enough to be doing mostly new and unique stuff. It's still not very good, but at least it's not painfully over-familiar.

For some reason, this line this afternoon really got to my funnybone:
"This is my father's parrot, Billy."


Hmm, is Billy the name of the parrot, or the name of the friend to whom the parrot is being introduced? Is Billy not rather an odd name for a parrot?? And why does my father have a parrot anyway?!

And why did I find myself wrestling the strange compulsion to read it as:
"This is my father's pirate, Billy."


I fear my dreams tonight are going to be haunted by the adventures of Pirate Billy. And his parrot - which will have a much more parrot-appropriate name, like Polly, or Dulcinella, or Saramago, or.....

Stop me, someone.

It's not just the Chinese

At one of my recording gigs this week, a character in a dialogue announced that he was going to have a humbugger for lunch.

Oh, it should be a word, it should!


It reminded me of a favourite happy accident of misspelling I encountered 20 years ago when I was a trainee teacher. I had asked a rambunctious class of 12-year-olds to write a science fiction story for me, and most of the boys had created post-Apocalypse scenarios in which they could run around playing at being a Mad Max-type vigilante. One of them broke into a gun shop to get 'tooled up'..... and came away toting a beersucker. Now that, I thought, would be a great word to describe me! I was a little disappointed when I eventually twigged that he had meant 'bazooka'.


A few years later, I had another class - 14-year-old boys, this time - writing an autobiographical piece about a time when they had experienced a strong emotion. This produced some lively writing from almost all of them, although it had a lot of shortcomings technically since this was the bottom ability stream and they all had fairly significant learning deficits.

One lad wrote about an incident the previous summer when there had been a fire aboard his parents' yacht. Unfortunately he wrote:
"The excitement was mounting, and so was my sister." (A brilliant syllepsis!)

I might have been able to restrain myself from falling off my chair with mirth if he hadn't followed up with this line:
"We couldn't bare any more!"


[I had a feeling I had told this story on here before, but couldn't find it when I searched the blog just now. Apologies if it is a repetition.]

Yet more annoyance with Chinese educational publishers

One of the educational publishing houses I work with here from time to time - one of the biggest ones in China - asked me to do some work for them this week.

Well, they sent me an e-mail on Tuesday evening. They wanted the work returned by lunchtime the next day. There was no reference to the fee payable.

It was copy for a new promotional brochure. The work asked of me was described as mere "checking", a simple proof-reading/polishing kind of deal. In fact, the text was somewhere beyond Chinglish, just risible garbage, and would have required very substantial re-writing.

Now I could have (as most people in this business, I fear, would have done) run the thing through SpellCheck and GrammarCheck on Word, and tidied up the more egregious errors in half an hour or so. But, really, what would have been the point? I doubt if they would have been willing to pay me much more than 100 RMB, and it's really not worth firing up my computer for such a paltry sum.

In fact, since I went to bed at dawn, and didn't get up until noon yesterday, I had pretty much missed their 'deadline' anyway. So, I had an easy way to decline the job. But I get so incensed about this ridiculous last-minutism and the incessant penny-pinching of these publishers that I couldn't let this incident pass. In my e-mail reply today, I noted heavily: "You really need to employ a professional (native English speaker) copy writer for this kind of work; but you are evidently not prepared to pay for one."

Can you hear my teeth grinding?

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

A happier kind of anniversary

I am wary of bringing up China's forthcoming anniversary with any of the Chinese people that I know. As with the other two of the "three T's", it can incite strong emotions and violent opinions. Occasionally you still find people who are fearful of being overheard when they discuss it. But most of the time, I just get the feeling that people are simply not very comfortable talking about it, so I try not to probe or pry.


However, it happened to come up, rather indirectly, last week in one of the cosy discussion forums I've been chairing with a small group of lawyers..... and one of them suddenly told me, "I met my husband on June 3rd, 1989."

He was, she said, a graduate student at BeiDa (Peking University); and she, although she'd finished her Master's a year earlier, was working in some kind of administrative job there. Students had been boycotting classes and lectures for some weeks, as part of the protest movement; so, there was something of a holiday atmosphere on campus, despite the anxieties caused by the imposition of martial law. Indeed, one can imagine that the tension of those days would tend to draw people closer together, and encourage the blooming of romance. And summer evenings in Beijing can be quite balmily blissful. I wouldn't be surprised if many love affairs blossomed in those difficult days.

But, of course, even these happier memories are partly clouded by the wider historical events, by the horror of what was about to start unfolding. My lawyer friend tells me that her new beau, one day to-be husband, had been planning to go down to join the sit-in on the Square that evening. If he hadn't been diverted by the excitement of new love, he might not have lived to have children he could tell this tale to.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

I fear I'm just not musical enough

Yet another reason why I don't learn Chinese....


Sorry, I don't get the tone thing at all. I guess I just have a tin ear.

Perhaps if I'd started younger, I might have had a chance. An item in the UK's Daily Telegraph last week reported a recent scientific study which seems to suggest that learning a tonal language in childhood may help you to develop perfect pitch.

Hmm - I confess to a certain scepticism on this. The Torygraph story is too slight to be of much value, and I can't see why it is 'news' now, since the original study appears to have been done back in 2004! Aha! I've just discovered this article in the New Scientist, which is evidently what prompted the Torygraph hack into action; but even this is dredging back into the past researches of Dr Diana Deutsch, not turning up anything new. I found rather more interesting (oh, how Google sucks you in!!) this piece from Scientific American which suggests that there may be a genetic predisposition to developing/using/learning a tonal language. You see, that feels like my problem: I've out-evolved the tones!

??????

Yesterday, in the recording studio....


"How do you feel the milk?"


I figured "How do you feel about...." had probably been intended; but even that's a rather odd question.

Monday, May 04, 2009

New Picks of the Month

For this month's delve into the archives, I nominate....

from Froogville, IMLTHO, a post from July 2007 in which I rant against my least favourite acronym and the vice of false humility (none of that on here, I assure you);

and from Barstool Blues, I choose The Worthy Opponent, a celebration of my pal Tony 'The Chairman's phenomenal pool-playing skills (in honour of his recent 50th birthday!).

Enjoy.

Traffic Report - the blog stats for April

My oft-stated ambition to slow down a bit in my blogging output still shows little sign of being realised. Total number of posts was down last month, but only very slightly. In fact, considering I was hors de combat for two weekends (one devoted to a trip to the countryside, and one to a colossal bar crawl), and cut off from the Internet altogether for three days on top of that, the average of posts-per-day was in fact rather elevated. At least the overall volume of verbiage was reduced, especially on Froogville.


On Froogville last month there were 48 posts and 14,000 words.

On Barstool Blues there were only 35 posts, but still around 12,000 words.


According to Google Analytics, the Barstool is plodding along as ever with around 1,000 visitors per month, while Froogville's traffic has ballooned to 1,740 visitors last month (although Statcounter puts the figure higher, just above 2,000, and Sitemeter - which I'm lumbered with as my sidebar display - much lower! Put not your trust in traffic monitors...). That total, however, was much boosted by the popularity of my long nostalgia post, China and me (memories of my first encounter), on April 18th, which drew 400 visits over the following 3 days.

My Beijing Restaurant Guide is also drawing a little attention (though not as much as I might hope!).


The only other news of note I derive from my stats sites is that Froogville has drawn its first visitor from Brazil. I am particularly gratified by this since my mother was born there.

Thank you for continuing to read. (Oh yes, I have some stalkers - sorry, 'followers' - on both blogs now. What a responsibility!)

I shall endeavour to produce less but better over the coming month.

Bon mot for the week

"Nobody is an atheist when the brakes fail."

Froog

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Wot, no poem?

Well, yes, there is - but this week it's over on The Barstool.


I would also call your attention to the back page of this month's Time Out Beijing (not available on the website, sadly), which carries an excellent obituary for Ian Sherman, the magazine's much-missed rock music critic.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

List of the Month - Chinese friends

And how I came by them...


Kai Pan over on the always interesting CN Reviews blog had a particularly provocative post the other day titled Expats In China Don't Need To Make Chinese Friends. I was prompted to leave quite a long comment on the thread - which got 'eaten' by the system (Dang! I hate it when that happens! Always, always, always copy to clipboard before hitting 'submit'.).

There are many interesting issues to consider within this topic, and I'll leave most of them to other posts. Kai offered the critical, challenging observation that many foreigners here seem to socialize very little with local Chinese, and to have few if any Chinese friends - at least, not really close friends. (Unfortunately, he rather invited the derailment of his comment-thread by throwing in a jibe about the prevalence of foreign guys having Chinese wives/girlfriends - a phenomenon I mentioned here in passing just the other week.)

I might at some other time ponder on the various cultural factors that limit the amount of socializing most laowai do with Chinese people, and make it difficult to form or maintain deep friendships. There is an intriguing question of gender imbalance: I think expats - of both sexes - tend to have far more female Chinese friends than male ones (that's certainly true in my own case - even though I do not in general find Chinese girls especially attractive sexually, and have never yet had a Chinese girlfriend). I might also have a post or two in me on the nature of friendship, on its gradations (I think I probably have only 2 or 3 really close attachments that I've made in Beijing with non-Chinese; most of my lifelong confidant/soulmate relationships go back at least a dozen or so years, the majority of them in fact 20 years or more). Ah yes, and then there's the moral question underlying Kai's post: is it wrong to have few or no Chinese friends, must we try harder to make some?

I think Kai's implication that many, perhaps most foreigners in China socialize with the Chinese hardly at all, outside of work/business or wives/girlfriends, is unfair. It does not accord with my experience. I believe he's based in Shanghai, and perhaps things are different down there. Even in Beijing, I can see that it's often true of a certain sort of expat: some of the long-term expats who've been here 15 or 20 years dabbling in various business schemes do seem to fit that mould; and the Shunyi-ites, the MNC managers with the fat remuneration packages who live with their families in gated communities far out of the city, cocooning themselves in a facsimile of a middle American suburb. But that's not the majority of expats here. Most of the people I know prefer activities and entertainment venues where they are likely to encounter a vibrant mix of foreigners and locals. Most foreigners I know have a good number of Chinese friends, including at least one or two really close ones.

When I was reviewing the numbers listed in the address book of my mobile phone a little while ago, I was quite gratified to confirm that well over half of them are under Chinese names. OK, a good number of those are work contacts. And quite a few are overseas Chinese. But still, I do have a significant proportion of mainland Chinese friends here, nearly 50%. (In my e-mail address lists, it's probably at least 70% or 80% - but they're mostly 'acquaintances' rather than 'friends'.)

So, how does one make Chinese friends? Where do my friends come from?


Work
I remain on close terms with a number of teaching colleagues and administrators from the various organizations I've worked for. There are two I'm particularly fond of: a fellow teacher at one of the universities I used to work at (though she's now moved on to become a tour guide) and the office manager of a foreign training company (a job I helped her to get).


Former students
I'm a cheerful and outgoing sort of chap, so I generally establish a very affectionate bond with the people I teach. My relationship with the first group of students I taught in Beijing became especially close, because of the very intensive nature of the teaching (two classes of 20 students in their late teens, who I was teaching every day, and living alongside for 9 months) and the peculiar stresses we were under (SARS, and a more-than-usually horrible school). I've kept in touch with most of them by e-mail subsequently, and still quite often see the few of them who now live in Beijing. There are a handful of ex-students from my time teaching at universities that I keep in touch with too (all girls, as it happens; but there is a massive preponderance of girls studying arts subjects, especially in the 'teaching' universities). Most of my teaching subsequently has been with adults. It's usually been harder to bond enduringly with students like this because I'm only seeing them once or twice a week, and usually only for quite short periods. However, a few of these I would now count amongst my closest Chinese friends: a TV news editor, a scarily high-ranking policeman, a former architect turned property investment broker (who I helped to prepare for his MBA applications/interviews, and who later became my flatmate for six months), and a couple of department heads at the leading American IT company where I used to be the in-house training co-ordinator.

Networking events
Now, here's a situation where there tends to be an especially high ratio of women to men! Nevertheless, I do meet some interesting guys at this kind of thing from time to time: I am especially glad to have made the acquaintance of Ben, a young entrepreneur who is the brightest person I have met in China.

Friends of friends
I'm very interested in the modern art and rock music scenes here, and through foreign friends involved in those areas I have been lucky enough to be introduced to - and occasionally become friends with - some of the most interesting, creative, and unconventional Chinese folks in the city. And my oldest, dearest Chinese friend is the wife of the university buddy I came here to visit 15 years ago.

Hanging out in bars
Since this is my favourite leisure activity (I have an entire blog devoted to it!), it is hardly surprising that this is how I make most of my friends, of whatever nationality. A fair few of my male Chinese friends are barmen, bar managers, bar owners. And over the past couple of years, I have made a number of good friends, both Chinese and foreign, through the shared love of the game of pool (in the coolest little neighbourhood bar in the capital).


So, yep, one way and another, I have quite a lot of Chinese friends. And I don't think I'm at all untypical. I'd say the same is true - perhaps even more so - for most of the foreigners I know here. There may still be a question as to how many of these Chinese friends could be counted in the very closest circle of friendship (I would have said one, perhaps; but we have rather lost touch since his job required him to relocate first to Hong Kong and then to Shanghai; and I'm bummed that he didn't invite me to his wedding last year!). There are all sorts of reasons why it is hard to achieve that ultimate level of intimacy with a Chinese person.... but I'll leave that discussion to another day.



Addendum: Well, I never did get around to writing the contemplated follow-up post on this - although, in reviewing this a few years on, I realise I did touch on most of the peripheral points I'd wanted to cover about the nature of friendship (and the difficulty of establishing really close friendships with the Chinese) in this post, or in subsequent comments below.

One unusual practical difficulty in maintaining Chinese friendships is the extraordinary volatility - and mobility - in the employment market here. People job-hop like crazy: especially in their first few years out of college, young Chinese seem to think nothing of changing jobs at least once a year, sometimes even within a few months (they're not in thrall to our Western notion that you have to stick something out for at least two or three years to prove you've got loyalty and staying power!). And even a bit later on into their careers, it seems to be quite common for people to jump every two or three years. It has frequently been a problem for me in winning repeat contracts for training seminars that the HR director who first hired me has moved on somewhere else less than a year later (strangely often, in fact, before I've even finished delivering the initial contract!).

And of course, when people switch jobs, they quite often switch cities as well. I suppose most of the well-educated high-achievers I get to meet aspire to have a chance to work overseas - or, in many cases, to emigrate permanently. Most of those that stay in China will gravitate to more commercially vibrant centres like Shanghai, Guangzhou, or Hong Kong.

This high level of mobility conspires with an unfortunate distaste for using e-mail. I don't think the Chinese like using e-mail even in their own language (perhaps because it can be slightly laborious writing characters via a keyboard); they're certainly highly resistant to using it in English. They all seem to prefer the IM format (the predominant platform here is called QQ), which I've never got into. It took me a while to twig just how big a problem this is, but... one of the main reasons I haven't been able to maintain many long-term Chinese friendships is that the Chinese rely mostly on their work e-mail address, they switch jobs every year or two, and they seldom if ever remember to notify their address book contacts of their new work e-mail. It is an exasperating phenomenon: I've lost touch with dozens of people this way.

A more general cultural obstacle, I think, is that Chinese folks just don't fit in with Western styles of socialising. They expect parties to highly structured, rather than free-form minglers; they like to have formal introductions to anyone they don't know; lots of organised activities, so that they won't be left having to make too much small talk; a timetable! They don't get on well with the much looser Western concept of a party, and will often be reluctant to attend unless they can bring a gaggle of their own friends with them.

They're not comfortable with Western bar culture either - whether it's because it's so alien to their experience or expectations within the culture they grew up with, or because many of them (regardless of experience) have an extremely low, often non-existent, physical tolerance to alcohol, or because they have too little disposable income to be able to afford a long evening in a bar. Even the few Chinese that do try to accommodate themselves to this lifestyle (it's become very trendy during the Nineties and Noughties, especially amongst university students and young professionals) tend not to drink nearly as much as most Westerners. And, as I noted in this post on my 'bar blog', Chinese taste in bars is radically different to that of Westerners - with the result that the great majority of bars, whether by accident or design, become almost exclusively Western or exclusively Chinese. [I prefer those bars that manage to achieve a good blend of the two communities in their custom, but it's a difficult trick to pull off; and it seems to be becoming increasingly rare.]

The Chinese concept of socialising seems to be exclusively restricted to eating out (which I love; but it can't be your only social outlet, every night of the week!), nightclubs and karaoke (which I hate).

There are other cultural incompatibilities as well: a typical ignorance or naivety - and often a deadening lack of curiosity - about life outside of China; a common 'chip on shoulder' insecurity about China's place in the world, and an attendant hair-trigger sensitivity on certain political issues (it is rather depressing how even quite educated and enlightened young Chinese, who often seem to be refreshingly open-minded about things like tolerance of homosexuality or calls for democratic reform and human rights improvements in China, can suddenly become knee-jerk nationalists over matters like the Senkaku Islands dispute); an occasional heavy-handedness in forcing their cultural values on you (things like having a host at a restaurant meal order all the food without consulting you at all, or insisting that you can never sip a drink without toasting or being toasted by someone really bug the crap out of me sometimes).... and, of course, the accelerated relationship timetable. (An American friend once explained it me thus: A Chinese girl isn't going to go on a second date with you unless she's decided to sleep with you. And she usually won't sleep with you unless she thinks that you're marriage material. So, by going on a second date together, she thinks you're expressing a willingness to get engaged. And she'll be wanting you to meet her parents on the third or fourth date, and making wedding plans before the end of the year. I feel he was exaggerating... but not by much.)

The combined impact of these many unfortunate factors explains, I think, why it is difficult for Westerners to form friendships with Chinese people here, and just about impossible to form any really close and lasting friendships with them.

But perhaps this isn't so strange, or so terrible. As I mentioned in the main post above, most of us have only a handful of truly close friends in our lives - probably fewer than ten in the innermost sanctum of the heart - and these tend to be people who are deeply compatible with us, in temperament, in interests, and in cultural background. I fear it is almost inconceivable that any Chinese person could attain that level of compatibility with a Westerner - not without spending several years overseas, anyway. Moreover, these very intimate friends of ours are mostly people that we met during particularly intense periods of our lives - at school, university, or at the outset of our professional career - and with whom we bonded especially closely because of some important shared experience, often a shared hardship. I think it becomes less and less likely that we will make such intimate friends after our mid-thirties - perhaps because our 'quota' is full up, or perhaps because we live life less intensely as we age. Whatever the reason, it just seems not to happen. And I was already pushing forty when I moved here.