Monthly Archives: May 2007

Easter Day, 2007

I skipped over a big holiday that I shall now write about:  my Easter of 2007!   
First, I can only talk about Easter with the understanding that my experience is exactly that;  just one person’s experience.  China is a big country.  Religion is one area in which I’m certain there are wide variances in treatment depending on where one is geographically located.  I live in one, very large, city that is known for having a relative amount of freedom and prior exposure to the west.   (Guangzhou was the terminus port on the southern silk road, a center of colonial activity, and even in modern history was the first area of China to open to "the West.")  Any grand pronouncements on my part about the general state of "religion in China" would be very sophmoric.  Religion is one area in which I’m fairly confident that each person’s experience is unique, dependent on both the person and on their geographic location.  Nevertheless, there are a few common themes. 
I believe there are a lot of misperceptions in the west about the role of religion in Chinese life.  Even if exaggerated, some of these myths are grounded in truth.  For instance, a Christian is not allowed to be a member of the communist party!  I understand that the anti-religous zeal is not limited to Christianity, but to every belief that falls into the category of "superstition."  No openly religious person may be a Party member.  Moreover, every organization is required to register with the government.  The government provides funds and support for the organization, as well as supervisory oversight.  Every organization reports, ultimately, to the CP.  Thus, the state does control the church.  This is necessary for two reasons. 
First is the need to control dissemination of information.  This is a paramount concern.  Religious organizations are places of assembly where beliefs are communicated.  I’m told that running afoul of this was the key fault of one of the organizations that was banned in very recent history.  Any Assembly with powerful organizational capability is potentially dangerous.  In a sense, China is like a bubbling cauldron.  Any social unrest could possibly lead to very dangerous consequences. 
There is also the sticky, negative history regarding the association between Christianity and colonialism.  It’s a fact that he who wins the war gets the privilege of writing history to fit his own narrative.  It is a fact that Colonial powers used sales of opium into China to attempt to balance the tremendous trade deficits as European and American consumers gobbled up Chinese made products in the 19th Century.  Their religion was tainted by its association with them. 
The Chinese had an equivalent of an opium "tea party" right here on the shipping dock in Canton, otherwise known as Guangzhou, dumping tons of opium into the river in an act of defiance regarding the forced sale of drugs into their homeland.  In response, the Colonial powers took military action to protect shipping and trade channels of the drug.  This resulted in the war which led to establishment of Hong Kong as a British colony.  It also resulted in the treaty which allowed access by foreigners — including missionaries — into China.
A modern day equivalent is almost un-imaginable.  Imagine in modern times, if a South American drug cartel were selling opium or cocaine into New York, Los Angeles, and Galveston, and Miami!  Is this unbelievable?  Well, stretch your imagination because in Colonial era China, the equivalent of exactly this scenario became a reality.  Except the location was China, and the drug cartel was the merchants of the Colonial powers, supported by their governments seeking the balance their trade deficit.  (See, the imbalance of trade with China is not a new issue.)   
Imagine, in my hypothetical scenario, that the drug cartel was so powerful that it set up trading headquarters in protected islands in each of major port cities in the USA, defying all attempts by Washington to stem the drug trade.  In this scenario, drug addiction becomes a serious problem for society.  Fueled by free samples, bribes to officials, and wide distribution networks, approximately 10% of the population develops a serious addiction problem.  There seems to be no way to stem the trade.  The center of the trade is located in Galveston, far away from Washington. 
The central government in Washington sends its best administrators to stop the drug trade, but ordinary measures don’t work.  The administrator from Washington asks for, and receives, military intervention to get rid of the cartels.  But the South American drug cartel has far superior weapons and military technology.  The drug cartel, supported by the governments of South America, delivers a humiliating defeat to the U.S. Army and then uses this military victory to force the USA government to sign treaties that give it free license to continue to do business in the port cities.  Thus, as the result of a military war, the drug cartel forces the USA to accept shipments of illegal drugs into the nation.  
Is this hypothetical situation outrageously impossible?  Well, I have just laid out a hypothetical equivalent of the Chinese Opium Wars.  The Chinese made two attempts to expel the Colonial merchants who were selling opium into the country.  The first Opium War was in 1839, and the second was in 1856.  This is how Hong Kong came to be a British colony:  the Chinese were able to expel the British from Canton for a time, but they set up camp in Hong Kong instead. 
Now for the million dollar question.  "How," you might ask, "does this in any way, shape, or form relate to religion in modern day China?" The answer is that the treaties won as a result of the opium wars were used to procure access for Christian missionaries to travel into China.  As a result, missionaries (as well as their converts) came to be associated with the deleterious effects, and humiliation wrought by, colonialism.  I read that during the Boxer Rebellion, one of the groundswell movements to eliminate the colonialists from China, it is estimated that 30,000 Christians in China were killed.  Missionaries were expelled because of the bitter taste of colonialism that they were associated with.  To this day, proselytizing carries with it that same, unpleasant association.   
Because of the Christian church’s association with colonialism, China is extremely sensitive to outsiders being in positions of leadership in the church.  Because of the legacy of colonialism, as well as hostility to any organization whose power structure is not controlled by the CP, proselytizing is strictly forbidden under Chinese law.  It is, in fact, a legal requirement that every religous organization must only have Chinese citizens in positions of leadership.  There is one registered church in my city which has foreign leadership.  It was approved soley to meet the needs of expatriates.  To enter that church on a Sunday morning, one must present a foreign passport.  (This church is called the Guangzhou Christian International Fellowship, and their web site is at .)  Chinese citizens are not allowed to attend. 
In practice, the requirement that Chinese religious organizations have only local leadership and report to the CP results in a delicate dance between Chinese Christian organizations and their sister organizations in other parts of the world.  This insistence on "Chinese church for and by the Chinese only" is why the Catholic curch does not recognize the Papacy in Rome, and why the Papacy in Rome does not have any official ties with the Chinese Catholic church.  The Catholic church in China reports to a Bishop who has been appointed by the Communist Party, not by Rome.  Rome, likewise, does not recognize the legitimacy of the Bishop appointed by Beijing. 
This leads also to differences in approach between the various protestant denominations.  The Baptists, for example, refuse to participate in this system.  Presbyterians, on the other hand (which is my denomination) insist on working within legal structures.  The Baptists have a vested interest in proving to their USA domestic audiences that the church in China is widely persecuted.  The Presbyterians, on the other hand, devote space on their web site to showing how the church has great freedom in China.  The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. 
All this said, now, I can turn to the specific issue of where I fit into this.  My little family is just a set of little minnows in a big ocean.  We find GCIF far too fundamentalist for our taste.  The one time we visited the church, David was fairly happy there but I felt far too much emphasis on judgment and condemnation, far too little on love and grace.  I wasn’t motivated to go back.  There are other, Chinese, churches where we are welcome to attend, but they are not particularly fulfilling for us.  There is only one church we know of that has a bilingual English / Mandarin service.  It’s a long way from our house and has nothing except a sermon, has nothing to offer our children.  And it, too, is very fundamentalist.  So more or less, we don’t go. 
So this year I was thrilled when a Chinese friend of mine invited me to attend a special Easter service at a protestant church in a different area of the city.  This church only has services in Cantonese.  As little as we know of Mandarin, we cannot communicate at all in Cantonese.  Nevertheless, on Easter Sunday it didn’t matter so much.  The main program was musical, with a special piano performance by a famous pianist who is now 86 years old.  Our friend invited us to accompany her to the musical performance. 
On Easter morning, we dressed in our Sunday clothes.  It had been so long since Munchkin dressed this way that we couldn’t find her black dress shoes or her red stockings to go with her red and green dress.  So, she wore her white Chinese style shoes instead, along with her maroon stockings to go with her red and green dress.  Quite fashionable.  Then we went in a taxi and met our friend at an intersection close to where we would be going.  She directed the taxi from there into an older part of the city, where we exited the taxi and then walked back into an older neighborhood where the streets are too narrow for cars. 
There, we came to the Protestant He Nan Church of Guangzhou.  The word "he nan" simply means south of the river.  It is in the Haizu District, about a 15 minute walk south of Shamian Island, the site of the Cantonese opium dumping and subsequent British reprisal. 
When we arrived, we were escorted to the front of the church.  (Later, I learned to my consternation, that it was our youngest daughter who led our Chinese host to this spot!)  There was a short service which included announcements, prayer, and the Apostles Creed.  Then, there were musical presentations by both the regular choir and the senior choir, and a lovely piano performance.  The music was all hymns that we recognized and mostly knew by heart.  The hymnals were all in Chinese, but we sang along in English for the songs we knew!  We felt warmly welcomed. 
After the close of the service, we went to Shamian Island, the old Colonial District, had lunch at a western restaurant, toured some of the souvenir shops, and took Munchkin to the park there.  The adoptive families were out in full force.  They often stay at the White Swan Hotel on Shamian Island.  I struck up a conversation with one of the new moms.  A nice day was had by all.  I’ll create a photo album for it. 
Contact info for some churches: 
I just found the following web page which has addresses in chinese, opening hours, and photos:
And then I also have the following: 

Sacred Heart Cathedral (Seksat)
56/7 Yide road (Yat Tak Road)
Guangzhou, Guangdong 510120
Tel 20-8333 6761
Sundays: Conducting English mass
Shamian Catholic Church
Our Lady of Lourdes
14 Main Street, Shamian,
Guangzhou, Guangdong.
Tel 20-8188 9858
Temporary worship site for expats
Jingxing Hotel
3/F, 89 Linhe Xi Lu, Tianhe District
Tel 8755-2888
Sunday mornings (9:00 — 11:30)

The Protestant He Nan Church of Guangzhou
Tel 20-8442-2935
Protestant Church on Shamian Island
From front (north) door of White Swan hotel, turn left and walk toward
U.S. Consulate Tower.  Church is on right. Meets 10:30 AM sundays
Historical Reference (one of several):  "The Opium War and Foreign Encroachment,"



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Guangzhou Women’s International Club

May 24, 2007

Today was the annual business meeting of the Guangzhou Women’s International Club, or GWIC.  This friendship available through this club is one of the very special things about an expat assignment in Guangzhou. 

GWIC is open to every woman who holds a foreign passport.  I’m told that this stands in contrast to other cities, where expat clubs are limited to certain nationalities.  The diversity within GWIC does add cross cultural challenges!  But on the other hand, it makes club membership a very enriching and mind-expanding experience. 
Additionally, I’m told, women in other cities, with larger expat communities, tend to be stratifiedin within their clubs by status and prestige of company and position.  Not so here.  The women of GWIC make a point of being inclusive, helpful, and supportive for all women who find themselves newcomers in a foreign land. 
The leadership of GWIC attempts to have at least one activity each week, so that women who find themselves lonely or depressed will have an opportunity to get out of the house and make new friends.  Within GWIC, there are special interest meetings and activities, such as newcomers meet and greet, cooking group, book club, professional women’s night out, monthly luncheons, and monthly trips to various places in the vicinity of Guangzhou.  Many lasting friendships are forged through GWIC. 
Here’s a personal GWIC story of just one way GWIC has helped me.  Upon returning from the USA one time, I confessed to a GWIC Board member that I was having a hard time adusting to the return.  I had not gone out in a taxi even.  My mind rebelled against the thought of speaking Mandarin again.  I just couldn’t bring myself to cope with the challenge of struggling to make myself understood to a taxi driver whose primary motive was to drive me the longest way possible to a destination.  The Board member exclaimed, "You must go out every day, or you’ll get depressed!"  Then she said, "I’ll take you what, I’ll take you for a foot massage tomorrow."  (Foot massage is one of the luxuries of Guangzhou, costing about 35 RMB for a 45 minute session.)  Sure enough, she did take me out.  We had a lovely afternoon together, and that got me over the hump. 
GWIC also helps women find their way around, not only to find out where to buy cheese or coffee, but also where to find expat medical clinics or how to arrange a medical evacuation.  Minor and major details of life. 
Every expatriate woman who is considering a move to Guangzhou should, in my opinion, take advantage of the information, resources, and support of GWIC!  The GWIC web site is at:  Check it out! 


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Another Pickpocket

May 23, 2007

I wrote a few days ago about trying to get a security guard to call police or to help a woman who was being abused by her boyfriend.  The security guard did nothing in spite of my requests.  It puzzled me why no one would help.  Is it a Chinese thing, of not getting involved to help a stranger?  Or is it an example of "bystander apathy" (aka "Kitty Genovese Syndrome")? 

This experience, as well as stories by other expats, makes me fear, if we were in some bad situation here, would someone help us?  I think that’s the reason the expat community is pretty tight here.  We know we have to take care of each other, because none of us has the same safety net that we would have in our home countries.  It’s an interesting thing to see that expats, and not just me, extend themselves to each other in ways that would be unusual in their home countries.
Well yesterday, a bad thing happened again.  Somebody pickpocketed Sarah’s phone.  Good thing it was a cheap one.  She wondered aloud why the thief didn’t target her cash, but the fact is that statistically any given cell phone will probably be more valuable than the amount of cash a person is wearing.  She was with a friend, so it was a skillful pickpocket.  I looked on the internet, did a web search for crime, guangzhou, and found some startling statistics about crime here.  There’s opportunity, just in terms of sheer volume of numbers, because there are so many people, and there truly are relatively few police. 
In the meantime, I told Song Ying about it, and she replied that she’s been trying to warn us dummies!  THEN she tells me that her 17 year old, slender daughter was robbed in December, in what sounds like a much more invasive attack.  Two men dragged the girl by the hair to a place where there were no people, then they made her dump everything out of her bag, empty her pockets, and they even took her shoes.  She said her daughter cried for a long time after this.  She told me, "Stay where there are other people!  Don’t ever go where there are no people!"  Language is an issue, but I think Song Ying told me that we would be particularly targeted because we are westerners.  Everyone knows that foreigners carry a lot of money.  At any given moment, I probably have more than a month’s wages for an average person, in my pocket. 
I try to be careful and aware, but my fear is that you never know when it’s going to strike.  If you knew ahead of time, you would act accordingly to eliminate that risk.  All I can do is act in a way to reduce known risks.  At least, I feel, I have some awareness of the risks.  On the other hand, how do you convince a teenager or young adult who by nature thinks he is invincible? 

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Handicap Access in China

Don’t count on it. 
When I was a child in elementary school in the USA, handicapped children were still shunted off to institutions.  I remember the movement, spearheaded by parents of handicapped children, to get their children "mainstreamed" into ordinary classrooms.  In fact, I think the word "mainstreaming" was coined about this same time.  It was a novel concept.    
I remember the principal of my elementary school openly griping about how difficult and expensive it would be to retrofit my school, built with nothing but concrete stairs, so that handicapped children could ascend to classrooms on the second floor.  I also remember the undercurrents of resentment and ridicule expressed, occasionally, at the expense of retrofitting public buildings so that courthouses, libraries, and tax offices would be accessible to handicapped people.  
Fortunately, with the help of a few well-placed court battles, the advocates won.  Now, twenty or thirty years later, I would find it shocking in the USA to find any building widely used by the public, including restaurants, that was not accessible by wheelchair. 
Because of its contrast with American buildings, the general lack of handicap access is something that shocked me when I came to China.  There is some handicap access here, but it’s just as likely that a building won’t have it.  Or, when there is handicap access, it’s quite likely to be very inconvenient to use or  to be set up in such a was as to make its user feel very conspicuous.  For example, there is handicap access in the subway stations.  You have to call an attendant to unlock a little chair that slides up and down a railing over the staircase. 
Some will argue that it’s a matter of resources, that China simply doesn’t have the resources to spend on handicap access.  I don’t buy this argument.  Failure to enable access by a handicapped person also wastes human resources in the form of what that person could contribute to society if he had access.  We learn from experience as a society that not only do handicap people have valuable talents, they also have valuable perspectives supplied by their unique challenges. 
And I also don’t buy the "resources" argument.  There is plenty of money in China.  Someone recently told me that there is more money in my area of Guangdong Province than there is in all of Hong Kong.  I believe it.  The economy here is going great guns, as one look at all the new skyscrapers will tell.  It’s simply a matter of priorities and who gets what. 
Given the contrast, the ubiquitous presence of handicap facilities in the USA is something I’ve come to appreciate very much about my own culture. 

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Yet Again

Why do I feel like a broken record on this subject? 
International / Americas
Poisoned Toothpaste in Panama Is Believed to Be From China
Published: May 19, 2007
Diethylene glycol, a poisonous ingredient in some antifreeze, has been found in two brands of toothpaste that appear to have originated in China.

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Baomo Garden in Panyu, May 8, 2007

On our anniversary, we had a very quiet day.  We considered going to the hot springs, but we didn’t want to do anything so involved as a day trip.  David did take a day of vacation, though.  He was exhausted from working long hours and the weekend for the preceding week, so we both slept in.  Then we went for zao cha (dim sum, or yum cha in Cantonese).   I sent SMS phone text to a couple of friends asking for recommendations about what to do for a quiet afternoon trip.  At Ashley’s suggestion, we went to Baomo Garden in Panyu.  It was a lovely suggestion.  There is a photo album to accompany this blog entry, or perhaps this blog entry is an accompaniment to the photo album. 
The brochure for Baomo Garden says that it was destroyed in the 1950’s and rebuilt in 1995.  The rebuilding project lasted eight years.  As stated in the brochure, "The garden now has an area of 100,000 m2, combining the culture of an upright official, gardening arts and ancient building styles in Southern China, waterside scenery in the pearl River Delta and exquisite works of arts in ancient or modern time." 
The primary feature of the garden is water.  There are many different kinds of pools and ponds, including an area for swimming and wading.  There are pools that are literally teeming with koi.  Koi are a symbol of abundance and wealth.  According to the brochure, there are thirty different bridges in the garden.  A Chinese garden is set up to give many different views, varieties of experience.  One thing that strikes me about Chinese gardens is that, in them, nature is very controlled.  This is a gross over generalization, but the natural environment is not valued necessarily as purely a natural feature, but rather as how it can be utilized for human enjoyment.  Hence, one of my friends commented about "sacred graffitti" in natural areas. 
There is no hesitation about altering or adorning natural environments to make them more enjoyable for human use.  An example in this particular garden that was shocking to me was that in one area, huge stalagtites and stalagmites had been assembled to make fake caves, not to be entered but for appearance only.  I was shocked that someone had broken off stalagtites that must have been thousands of years old and transported them to an artificial area.  I once read that things like this happened in North America during the era that produced Mount Rushmore and the Hoover Dam. 
Near the vicinity of the cave dioramas, there was what seemed to be some type of hall with murals devoted to Monkey, the key character in the tale "Journey to the West."  I would not be surprised if the original use of the building were as a temple of some sort.  Given the history of the garden, it was hard to tell what was original, versus what had been rebuilt.  I’ve also read this is a hallmark of Chinese use of buildings and materials:  the "old" is not worshipped as an end in itself.  The Chinese don’t necessarily value the ancient use of a building or land, they ask what is its present highest and best use.  In this case, the present use was as a small museum type area to show off the murals on the inside, the intricate carved work on the ceiling, and some artistic artificats including some vases that were several hundred years old.  The murals were detailed and lovely. 
Passing through this area, we proceeded through more water gardens and outdoor corridors to find what is billed as the longest tiled wall mural in the world.  It, too, was lovely.  We also found a tea house where there was a live music performance.  It appears that there are performances roughly every hour.  There is also a restaurant and rose garden, more water gardens. 
A surprise was to find a fairly extensive display of antiquities.  Unfortunately, there was no explanation of what they were or where they were discovered.  I don’t read Chinese, but I coudn’t see it in English or Chinese.  The explanation in the brochure states, "A large number of bronze ware, jade articles and porcelain works of art are displayed in Zhao Tai Lai hall of Art." 
At the very end of the day, we paid a cartoon artist to paint a portrait likeness of ourselves for 180 RMB.  This was a humorous waste of time and money, but it’s an interesting souvenir.  We decided he captured what, in his mind, was the essence of our likeness:  we are laowai.  Foreigners.  He captured the caucasian part real well, just not much else.  We hope.  Unless I have a beard and David just had his wisdom teeth extracted.  It’s now hanging in our living room (for the time being).  I’m trying to decided whether just to throw it away or whether to keep it for a souvenir. 
Ah,  the most important and fun thing was just spending some time together.  Remembering the day, 25 years earlier, when we first got married.  We asked the artist to write "25 years of happiness" on our portrait.  Instead, he wrote, "married 25 years."  Oh well, more of his perception not ours.  We had a great time and just enjoyed the day. 

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Jiao Jingcha!

The phrase "Jiao Jingcha!" means, "Call police!" 
One day, during my first month in China, my superb Mandarin teacher Xue Li, showed up for class and announced that we were going to deviate from the standard, introductory curriculum that day.   The night before, someone had stolen the pocket book of one of her students.  Her student lacked language skill to alert the shopkeeper or deal with police, so she had called Xue Li.  That day’s lesson for my class, Xue Li decided, was to be devoted to things we might need to say if we were ever victimized by crime. 
At the time, the lesson was far over my head.  I was still trying to learn the correct way to pronounce "xie xie" (thank you) or "Wo yao he shui" (I would like to drink water).  But sometime about a year and a half ago, I pulled out my notes from that day and reviewed them.  I practiced until I could say, with some authority, "Zuo kai!  Wo jiao jingcha!"  (Go away!  I will call the police!)  For some reason, I thought this phrase, said with enough authority and zest, would deter the numerous beggars who tend to target and then cling to westerners like filaments of wet hair.
A few days after practicing how to deliver this sentence with precision and authority, I found myself on a street corner adjacent to the wholesale jade market, being accosted by one particularly persistent, old beggar man.  One thing I find annoying about this particular beggar is that he’s not disabled in the least, and he’s very successful at being so annoying that he gets money from people.  Jumping at the chance to practice my new vocabulary, I hissed at the filthy man:  "Zuo kai!  Wo jiao jingcha!"  The staccatto punctuation of this sentence felt as natural to me as if I were spitting nails out of my mouth.  I made every effort to spew the verbal nails as forcefully as a drill sergeant spitting out the words at his troops.  The old man was completely unfazed.  He continued to stand directly in front of me, invading my body space and shaking the money pan loudly with as much gusto as ever.
It was only at this point, as I pondered what to do next, that it gradually dawned on me:  In order to enforce my threat, I actually had to carry it out.  I glanced around and noticed there were no police to be seen, anywhere.   In order to enforce the threat, I would have to start yelling like a maniac, and I wasn’t really prepared to do that.  I felt like the parent who threatens to punish a child but who then doesn’t have the gumption to carry out the punishment.  But just then, a couple of young security guards actually did walk by.  They saw the situation and shooed the man away for me, uttering a few choice curse words at him.  About a week ago, more than a year later, I walked by the same spot.  There, I saw the same, familiar old man.  I guess the jingcha don’t bother him too very much. 
When I first arrived in China, my early impression was that there were police everywhere.  But that’s not actually the case.  There are security guards everywhere.  Almost every business has one or several security guards.  I actually rarely see police. 
There are also security guards all over the island where I live.  Like, one on almost every corner.  They stand at the corners and gates of the housing compounds.  Each security guard stand is within view of the next security guard stand, something like the watchtowers that run the length of the Great Wall of China.  The presence of the security guards gives us a feeling of safety when we go out. 
Indeed, we have felt secure enough that we used to allow our teenage daughters to run along the riverfront even late at night.  Until one night, a security guard stopped my daughter and told her it wasn’t safe for her to be out that late.  He told her, specifically, not to run as far as the bridge (her usual turning around point) because a woman had been murdered there recently.  Slight chilling effect.  Since we can’t read the newspapers or understand TV, we wouldn’t have known this unless someone told us personally.  Now, we usually put the brakes on our outdoor activities by about 10 PM, although most of the time we still feel more safe here than in almost any city in the USA. 
Disturbingly, a few weeks ago I heard of a westerner who, along with his girlfriend, was badly beaten by a group of four young men while a crowd of onlookers did nothing to help.  It gives rise to the question, if I really need "jingcha," will they be there for me?  Would anyone help me?  If I were accosted on a street corner on my island, in plain view of a security guard, would that security guard come to my aid?  I ask this because I assume each set of security guards in fact is hired to guard his own, particular housing compound.  As such, I presume it is not within his job description to help someone who happens to be walking by on the street.  I’ve written before about the cultural difference that here, there is no duty or feeling of obligation to help a stranger.  In general, one cannot rely on any "good samaritans" to come to one’s aid. 
I had an experience with this kind of apathy just the other night.  At about 10 PM on Saturday night, we were walking through a pedestrian subway that runs under a busy road.  David and Munchkin walked ahead of me, but I slowed down in the hope that my notice and (unwanted) attention would cause enough embarassment to halt a bad scene.  A young woman, in her early twenties, was standing beside a wall.  Her body language was very withdrawn.  She had her arms in front of her, her head down, and she was trying to turn away from a young man I presume was her boyfriend.  At first, he was just yelling at her, and then he began to punctuate his yells with staccatto pokes and shoves.  As she withdrew more from him, he began shaking her and hitting at her.  David, by this time, was far in front of me.  And he had our little child by the hand.  When I saw the man was getting violent, I bolted up the stairs, ran out of the subway, and ran over to a security guard who was standing at the immediately adjacent, crowded bus stop. 
David, who had no idea of anything I had seen and even less idea what I was doing, was already in a taxi.  This was quite a coup on his part, having been successful in the competition for the rare, available taxi at mall closing time on a Saturday night.  As he was yelling for me to hurry up to get in the waiting taxi, I told the security guard quite plainly in my broken, lousy Chinese, "A woman in the subway right there (pointing) needs someone to help her!  A man is hitting her!  She needs police!"  
The security guard acted as if he didn’t know what I meant.  I persisted.  I repeated that a woman was being beat up, accentuating my words with pointing and hitting motions.  Finally, when he saw that I wasn’t just going to go away, he acknowledged that he understood what I meant.  He repeated, "a man is beating a woman?"  "Yes," I replied.   I thought I had been successful in getting some help for the woman.  The guard started to bring his walkie talkie to his mouth, then he put it down.  Then he took a few steps that direction.  David was getting desperate.  The taxi driver, stopped in a driving lane, would soon either drive off or kick him out of the car.  So, I ran to the taxi and threw myself into the back seat.  As I was piling in the back seat, I saw the security guard take one last look toward the subway and then walk back towards the bus stop.  He never did call the police.    
"It’s his culture," I thought to myself as the car drove away, "and I’m powerless to change it."  But it’s also a culture that I live in.  The next day, I made sure to repeat to my children the lesson, that they must never rely on presence of police or security guards to protect them from crime.  No more night runs alongside the river, for sure. 

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Today is my 25th wedding anniversary!  I can’t really believe, 25 years with the same old boyfriend! 

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Fighting Fair

May 1, 2007 

As I was researching online before my first trip to Thailand, I ran across an interesting Blog.  The writer issued a warning:  "Never get into a bar fight with a Thai."  Now, Thais are known as peaceable, friendly people.  Among my other readings, somewhere along the line, I’ve read that Asian cultures have much lower rates of sociopathy than western cultures.  Especially Thailand.  The question is why.  There’s speculation that Asian children are much more encompassed within their larger family unit, get more socialization and cuddling, and that this tends to snuff out any latent tendencies toward sociopathy.  Thais, in particular, have a reputation for being slow to anger, slower than westerners to fly off the handle.  So, why this advice to avoid the bar fight?  Though it takes more to provoke a Thai, according to the Blogger, if he does fly off the handle he’s gonna kill you.  The blogger put it this way:  "When an Englishman fights, he fights to win.  When a Thai fights, he fights to kill."   So, well, that’s another good piece of advice.  Next time I’m in a bar in Thailand, I’ll be sure to avoid joining in the violent fray, no matter how enticing it otherwise appears.   


I’ve written before about the concept that "what you don’t know, culturally, can hurt you."  It’s important to know the rules.  One of the very minor rules in China is that tipping is not the norm.  Americans like to tip for good service, not realizing that it’s not only not expected here, but in some circumstances might be construed as an insult.  But even knowing this, it’s hard to break the mindset.  But the issue of tipping is small change, literally, compared to another culturally shaped concept I bump up against regularly here.  That is, the concept of fairness.  What is considered "fair" in Asia is very different from what is considered "fair" in the West. 

I chose the Thai bar room brawl analogy deliberately because, as every (western) school boy (or tomboy) knows, when one is in a fight, there are certain things one still doesn’t do.  The things we don’t do are generally categorized as "hitting below the belt."  We Westerners think that certain categories of fighting are unfair and (mostly) we don’t do them:  we don’t hit a man with glasses, we don’t hit below the belt, we don’t hit from behind.  My Thai analogy illustrates that fairness is a hugely cultural concept.  Those rules don’t apply here!  A westerner in Asia had better realize real fast:  there ain’t really a concept of "fighting fair" here!  Maybe I should rather say that what is considered "within limits" is radically different from what a westerner would expect or be comfortable with.   

"Fair" is not defined by the rules we learned on the elementary school playground.  Rather, it’s defined as "whatever I can get by with."  It’s all about finding an advantage and using it for one’s personal benefit.  Nobody thinks anything of what we in the USA call "looking out for number one."  Chinese look out for #1, no matter what the consequences might be for party #2. As they say, "all’s fair in love and war."  Lying, deception, cutting corners, padded envelopes . . . the list could go on for a long time.  It’s a land of "buyer beware" in the extreme!   This is why the Westerner is going to lose the bar fight, as well as the reason that when a person buys an item in a department store, he must still open the box, assemble the item, turn it on, and make sure every aspect of the item is functional before he leaves the store.  It’s also why pet food containing the non-nutritious melamine, which mimics protein in lab tests, was imported into the USA.

(See, NY Times, Business / World Business.  "Filler in Animal Feed Is Open Secret in China," By DAVID BARBOZA and ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO, Published: April 30, 2007 Animal feed produced in China has been regularly supplemented with a cheap additive that is at the center of a pet food recall. )

The key issue, from the Asian’s viewpoint, is not to be "fair," but rather to get the best deal for me.  The issue is, "how hard of a bargain can I strike?"  It’s a matter of pride to get the best price.  Now, let me assure, getting the best price is not done with malicious intent, it’s just an assumed fact of life.  You must look out for your interest, as I will look out for mine.  If we can reach agreement, so much the better.  But the bottom line is always going to be, "what’s best for me," definitely NOT, "can we work a deal that is fair to both."   If melamine is a fifth the price of real protein, and if I can get by with substituting it, and if I don’t personally see any reason not to (for instance if I think there’s enough protein already), why not use it?  I will make more money! 

I’ve written before about dangerous types of fraud here, such as counterfeit antimalarial pills.  I wrote about my own incensed emotional response that the manufacturers of counterfeit antimalarials are guilty, in a moral sense, of murder.  But though I think the forseeability of harm from pushing too hard of a bargain (in the dishonesty department) imparts a component of malice, I don’t think the shopkeeper’s analysis goes that far.  Because, as he views it, his duty is to himself and to his family.  He doesn’t have a societal duty to worry about your or my well being.  It’s up to you and me to protect ourselves, in that regard.  (Another aspect of Asian culture is the fact that there is no duty owed to a stranger; which is one explanation why Asians prefer to do business with relatives and friends.) 

I’ll give an example of how the "no duty to stranger" rule works out in real life. 

A few weeks ago, I was shopping with a Chinese friend.  We were shopping in an area known for hand made batiks.  I found a shop where the man showed me his wax and brushes, his vats for dyeing.  And in the back of the shop I found a wall hanging I liked.  It was not extremely complex, but it was nice and was dyed with four different colors.  I asked him how much he wanted for it, and he said 60 RMB, which is about $8.00 U.S.  I looked around his shop.  It didn’t look like he was selling very much.  I liked his work, which was artistic and unique.  In the back of my mind was the thought, "this guy needs to make a living, too."  Knowing that I am expected to bargain, I offered 50 RMB, which he readily accepted.  The speed with which the guy agreed to take 50 was an immediate clue that I had paid way too much.  He probably would have been happy to take 30 RMB.  But driving the hardest bargain possible was not my primary objective.  My personal, guiding principle, in negotiating, was to be fair and reasonable, to pay a price that would enable this guy to make a living.  How naively American! 

My personal approach is definitely not in keeping with this culture.  When I rejoined my friend, she asked what I had paid.  When I told her she scolded me.  "Next time, wait for me!  I could have gotten this for you for 20 RMB!"   It’s not a malicious thought, to get the absolute lowest, rock bottom price.  She’s not a mean or vindictive person; she doesn’t wish ill on the other person.  She just doesn’t care so much what happens to him.  It’s a slight difference in perspective.  As I was walking with my friend on this day, pondering this exact issue, I noticed how many hordes of people there are here, all needy.  And culturally, no one is going to help the stranger.  So, "looking out for number one" is perhaps, actually, a cultural imperative.  There is always another beggar, always someone needy.  The dumb American (figuratively speaking, of course), who gives away too much, could end up with nothing and no place to turn for help in return.   And this population, I must remember, is one that survived the famine of the 1960’s.  The ones who survived were, indeed, the ones who took care of their own survival first, no?  

So, what is the significance of these differences in perspective?  I remember my law school contracts professor giving my class the explicit advice that a fair deal is often the most advantageous deal.  Why?  Because if one side feels they have been cheated, they will be looking for ways to cut corners and get out of the deal.  If both sides feel the deal is fair, the Western mindset goes, they will be less likely to try and break the deal or cut corners.  My contracts professor was making the advice as a matter of risk avoidance:  if a contract were drafted with fairness in mind, and parties felt it was fair, then they would both be inclined to adhere to their contract, leading to less risk of litigation later.  What an American perspective! 

Building a deal around fairness is not so relevant to the Chinese mind.  It’s more about advantage.  While the American guy is thinking he has a fair deal, the Chinese guy is seeing someone who can be played a bit more.  Let’s get it all settled, or seeming to be so, we might even draft a contract, and then after he’s on the hook I’ll jerk the chain just a bit tighter.  As a matter of power, you’ve always got to be willing to walk away.  

My Chinese friend gave me lessons on how to do this.  She instructed me, "Say your bargaining price in a gruff voice, then walk away quickly as fast as you can.  No other conversation or small talk!  It’s important to show no hesitation about walking away, to be ruthlessly mercenary, to show no interest, no matter how badly you want the item."  She found it a bit amusing that I asked each shopkeeper nicely, "Can you make it a bit cheaper?"  They said I was making two huge errors.  First, I was too nice about asking.  Second, I left it up to the shopkeeper to set the discount.  Thirdly, I suppose, is that I was showing too much interest in the object.  My approach, she said, might result in a 5 RMB price reduction, not a 50 RMB price reduction. 

To demonstrate the skill she wanted me to learn, my friend challenged me to pick a silver bracelet that she would bargain down for a good price for me. I chose a thick, silver bracelet that is carved with an intricate dragon and phoenix surrounding a central pearl.  The dragon and phoenix are the symbols of the emperor and the empress of China.  The dragon governs worldly affairs and the phoenix governs home and harvest, and the pearl shape in the center represents the middle kingdom.  (It’s a pretty nice piece, if it’s real, though I don’t really know if the silver is pure or not, since, well gee, you see what I’m writing about?!!  Do YOU think it’s real?! Anyway . . . .)  The vendor, a member of the Miao ethnic minority who are known for silver work, stated she wanted 100 RMB for the bracelet.  My friend barked sharply, “Twenty!” then ushered me at lightning speed to the next stall, moving on from that vendor.  Some words exchanged between them as we were in the next stall.  I didn’t understand all the Chinese, but I stayed behind when my friend returned to the stall to haggle a bit more.  The vendor said she would take 50, and so my friend briskly walked away and joined me again, where I waited.  Finally, then the vendor followed after us and said she would take 20.  So now I have a 20 RMB, wonderful silver bracelet — which may or may not be real silver — as a souvenir of a very memorable shopping experience!  

As this demonstrates, the objective is to get the best possible price, period.  I’ve been with Chinese friends who haggled 30 minutes over paying 3 RMB versus 5 RMB to a shoe repairman on the street.  While I’m observing this interaction, I’m thinking — to myself only of course, since if I were to breathe a word of disagreement it would disadvantage my friend in the negotiation — that the shoe repairman might need to eat that day, too, and how much is 2 RMB in the grand scheme of life.  But to some people, 2 RMB is a heck of a lot!  My housekeeper told me that when she first started work in 1976, she earned 20 RMB in an entire month! 

That was during the days of the iron rice bowl.  Things have changed now, and China is now extremely capitalist in its outlook, in my opinion.  Fairness is the pure, capitalist notion of what a willing party is willing to pay a willing seller.  On the flip side of that capitalist equation, I’ve been with a different Chinese friend who let me pay about triple the fair price for something in a market.  When I found out, I asked her later why she didn’t say anything to me while I was bargaining.  She replied, "It’s your money, and it’s what you were willing to pay.  You can do with your money what you like!"   

Obviously, I’m such a failure as a negotiator that I’ll never join the ranks of the wealthy!  I console myself with the thought that the Good Samaritan’s actions weren’t in keeping with the mindset of his culture, either.  For the most part, I try to live by the rules of the culture I’m in, but strike a balance with my own values.  And I try to at least be aware and intentional in the way I demonstrate my cultural values.  I don’t normally tip, but sometimes I do, often with a special word of thanks.  I do bargain, but only to a level that is comfortable for me, and I do notice whether the person I’m bargaining against seems to be one mouthful away from hunger. 

I’m aware that my generosity is sometimes perceived as stupidity.  Indeed, a Hong Kong shopkeeper once told me why he likes Americans as customers.  He says, "Indians have money, but they are very sharp.  They’re skilled negotiators, and they haggle a hard bargain.  Americans, on the other hand, are great customers.  They have a lot of money, and they’re not too smart."  A fool and his money are, truly, soon parted!  I guess, after first accepting that I’ll never be wealthy, I have to admit to myself that my true, main goal is not to end up dead on the bar room floor. 

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