Friday, March 30, 2007

Bless you

A few weeks ago, my roommate let out a big sneeze. "Whoa! Bless you!" I said.

She looked at me. "What?"

"I said, bless you."

"Oh." She looked confused. "Bless me?"

"Yes. You say that when people sneeze."

"Oh." She continued to look confused. "Doesn't 'bless' mean zhufu?" (That's the literal translation of "bless.")

"Well, yes, it does, but, you know, Westerners say it when someone sneezes, to, you know, bless them." I paused. That explanation didn't seem to have helped. "It's just a way of being nice."

"Oh." She considered this. "Okay."

"You can also say gesundheit," I added helpfully.

"Oh? And what does that mean?"

"The same as bless you."

"Right," she said. "Well, in China we don't say anything like that."

The closest I could come to any etymology of "bless you" was an image of a nice old lady chuckling merrily and saying, "Oh, bless you, child!" at a little girl's sneeze. I supposed that it had something to do with the sneezer's innocence, and the notion that some small affliction had come down upon her through no fault of her own. Beyond that, I had no idea.

(It turns out that "bless" comes from the Anglo-Saxon bletsian or bledsian, probably from blod, blood, from the use of sacrificial blood in ancient blessing ceremonies. That really doesn't help. Someone on the Internet thinks that the phrase originated during the plague in the 14th century, since a sneeze was thought to be the first sign of death. If that's true, my image of the nice old lady chuckling merrily seems so very, very wrong.)

Even though a sneeze in China is met with complete silence, the urge to say "bless you" when I hear one usually outweighs the difficulty I know I'll have of explaining what it means. In fact, half the time I say it without meaning to. When this happens people either look confused or, if they know about the strange Western practice, smile knowingly at their friends. Oh, these foreigners!

In a way it's alarming how deeply this cultural practice has become embedded into my habits, so much so that it becomes unconsciously reflexive, as innocent as a sneeze itself. It's alarming because the same thing can be said for so many automatic habits and assumptions, some not nearly so innocuous, or unfathomable, as the little phrase, "bless you."

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Crossing the street

Whenever you encounter a new city, it is imperative to learn how to cross the street. If you think the same rules apply in Muncie, Indiana as in New York, or, moving into more dangerous territory, in Istanbul, Hanoi, or Shanghai, you’re liable to get smooshed by a passing taxi, motorbike, or bus (respectively). I’ve found that the best strategy when learning the ropes is to wait patiently at the street corner until a local comes up beside you, then keep your eyes glued on his feet—and only his feet—all the way to the other side. In Chinese cities this may not work, since you could get clobbered from behind as well as from the side. Sidewalks are fair game for any manner of transportation on two wheels (and sometimes three). And in Hanoi, it’s better to think of the road as not so much a road as a kind of lava pit that you must jump over by intermittent stones strewn randomly across it. Sometimes you must pause while an especially fierce bunch of lava rumbles past, and you must never, ever turn and dwell upon the wall of fire that could hit you. Actually, as someone who grew up in Muncie, I had to learn at an old age how to cross the street, since in Muncie no one does so. If one lives across the street from the grocery store, and one needed some eggs, one would typically climb into one’s car and drive there. Consequently, when a Muncie driver does see someone crossing the street, the driver often doesn’t know what to do, and either swerves out of the way at the last minute or slows down far too soon in advance. In Shanghai, slowing down in advance is heavily frowned upon, though cars turning right always swerve out of the way at the last minute, so there is some similarity, though they always honk while doing it, while in Muncie honking is a really big deal. In Shanghai, cars turning right always have the right of way, or believe they do, which amounts to the same thing; and they guard that right fiercely, much like certain Americans might guard their right to have guns by shooting people who get in their way.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

English corner

On Sunday I went to the “English Corner,” an area of People’s Square Park in central Shanghai where people meet every Sunday to practice their English. A few foreigners stood scattered around the area, each surrounded by a mass of Chinese people shooting them questions. I spoke for more than three hours about (in no particular order) real estate prices in America and China, costs of going to college, loans and interest rates, costs of living, car insurance, what children do with their elderly parents, what “alpha dog” means, what “up and coming” means, what “stereotype” means, whether black people are violent and lazy, whether Jews are good at making money, whether Chinese living in America are hard workers, that Xinjiang is beautiful (from a Uyghur man whose accent sounded Turkish, not Chinese); the 1996 American election, the 2000 American election, the 2004 American election, and who will win the next American election; in addition, why there’s so much violence on American TV, whether Americans are really as promiscuous as they are on “Sex and the City” and “Friends,” whether it’s easy for American poor people to advance economically, what annoys me about China, what parts of Chinese lifestyles are most different from American ones, whether Shanghai is similar to New York, why the US attacked Iraq, differences between American girls and Chinese girls; also, what I think about Chinese culture, Chinese food, Chinese philosophy, Chinese literature, Chinese history, and Confucius. I was offered drinks, e-mails, phone numbers, and a job. It was really impossible to escape. People came and left my group, but always I had to stay.

In general, I sensed a great desire to travel, but travel to where? Traditionally, we think of Chinese as imagining the world in a China-Western (plus Japan) framework—that is how histories of modern China are usually written. Recently, it’s become clear that that is not the whole picture: awareness of other “developing” countries, for example, has played a huge role in imaginings of the world in the past 120 years or so. Still, finding ways in which Chinese conceptualize the world in ways that include the non-West usually remains limited to intellectual history. Common Chinese people now, I believe, very much privilege certain cultural hubs: American and Japanese for the most part (though recently Korean TV shows and movies have been hugely popular). I was struck at the English Corner by how focused people were on America, and not just because they were talking to an American. For many Chinese, to some extent at least, the world seems to be limited to a few certain spatial categories, “America” (a word that itself carries much baggage) paramount among them.

Thursday, March 8, 2007


Southeast Asia is infested with western backpackers. China is different. I stayed in a hostel in Shanghai for a week, and didn’t have a substantial conversation with a single westerner. Instead, the most common hostel guest was Chinese. Especially in the past decade or two, as people have made more money and it’s become easier to travel (while remaining very difficult for the vast majority of Chinese to get visas to “developed” countries), Chinese people have taken to tourism in their own country. (Many people I’ve talked to, though, desperately want to travel the world, but are held back by visas and money.) In China the problem I mentioned in an earlier post, of western backpackers just hanging out with each other, is not so serious (though interactions are usually limited to fellow Chinese travelers who can speak English). In my room the flow of travelers, apart from Chinese, included Koreans and Japanese. What’s more, though everyone spoke at least some English, the language of choice among East Asians was Mandarin. Is this a glimpse of the future?

I’m still waiting for the purported excitement of Shanghai to kick in. It seems to me that contemporary Shanghai, like the mythical Shanghai of the early twentieth century, is at its best for people who have money. An average salary for a Chinese coffee shop employee in Shanghai is about $120-150 a month (usually that includes lodging and maybe some food), while an entry-level office job usually brings in less than $400 a month. A night in Shanghai’s bars and clubs would cost at least $5 to $20, depending on where you go, so the nightlife is really intended for the city’s rich and its expats (of which there are many). I went to an informative talk on Art Deco the other day at a glamorous bar overlooking the Bund, the center of Shanghai’s former International Concession area. The place was filled with expats wearing black and drinking wine who were in love with Shanghai’s architecture. But the negative forces that enabled the creation of that architecture (which is indeed amazing), such as imperialism, were not mentioned. This glaring silence seems to too often be a feature of Shanghai expat life.