This is very curious. Conversations in China seem to last much longer than equivalent discussions in other countries, and for a long time I couldn't understand why. I think it's true that English is more precise than some other languages and that more explanation might be needed in Chinese to obtain a full understanding, but that didn't account for many of my experiences. For example:
Driving with a friend to Nanjing, stopped in some town for a snack, then needed to ask a local for directions to the toll highway. So my friend finds a likely candidate, puts down the car window and asks the question. And then:
She: blah, blah, blah, blah
He: blah, blah, blah, blah
She: blah, blah, blah, blah
He: blah, blah, blah, blah
This went on for more than five minutes, then my friend finally put up the window, and I said, "Well? What?" And she said, "We turn left."
Well, in my country, this conversation would have had three parts:
Total elapsed time, maybe 8 seconds. Not in China, apparently.
Then finally I had an experience that shed some light on all this. I wanted my ayi to come on Friday rather than Thursday that week and I wasn't sure she understood so I asked a friend to call her just to be sure. The conversation:
Friend: blah, blah, blah, blah
Ayi: blah, blah, blah, blah
Friend: blah, blah, blah, blah
Ayi: blah, blah, blah, blah
Friend: blah, blah, blah, blah
Ayi: blah, blah, blah, blah
I swear they were on the phone together for 20 minutes, and at the end I said to my friend, "Well? What?" And my friend said, "She can come on Friday."
That was too much. I insisted on an explanation of that interminable call and began to recognise the presence of a huge (and odd) cultural difference between East and West.
"Can you come on Friday instead of Thursday? Yes. How much does he pay you? Oh, that's too much. Yes, but I do a good job. Do you clean inside the closets ......"
All I wanted was a simple answer to a simple question, but these two women wouldn't stop until they'd probed into (and exhausted) every possible aspect of ayihood.
A part of an import/export business I once operated, was a retail store. I was thinking of changing retail locations and was in discussion with a commercial realtor about some high-end office complex/shopping space. The man told me that the price was so high because he could guarantee that at least 80,000 potential customers would pass by the front door of my shop each month.
Recently, a friend in Shanghai with an ad agency told me he'd cancelled a promotion at a local mall because, in his words, "We were barely getting 10,000 people an hour." That means that in Shanghai, in a substandard location, we have as much retail traffic in one day as we would in a month in a prime location in a largish city in Canada.
It also means that a good location in Shanghai will have more retail traffic in a week than a high-end mall in Canada or the US would have in a year.
But is still living at home with her parents, as her new husband is doing with his parents. It seems the girl's mother believes the boy should pay at least half of the price of a new house for the happy couple - and until she receives the cash from the boy's parents and a new house is purchased, the kids will continue to live at home with their parents. Shanghainese mothers are special in more ways than this.
One of the unexplained (to me, at least) phenomena in much of China is the strange aversion people have to heating their homes. Most apartments and homes in the past, including my own, have been built without central heating although the newest ones have it. In all the others, the heating and air conditioning units are add-ons. That's not a problem, except that in the Central Latitudes of China nobody seems willing to use heat in the winter. The climate is not that cold in the winter, down to maybe 5 degrees Celsius, sometimes a bit lower, and that doesn't seem to bother anyone. They just put on more clothing. It seems bizarre, because they have the heating units but just refuse to use them. By contrast, in the summer, everyone turns on the air conditioning to cool their homes because they can't seem to bear the heat.
During Chinese New Year in YiXing, I stayed in a hotel because I didn't want to die. My friend's family have a new home they obtained last summer, did all of the decorations and installations for it, but didn't even bother to install heating. And this winter has been cold - minus 5 or even lower INSIDE and outside, and nobody seemed to mind. And these people aren't poor - they own 4 houses, have their retirement pensions and lots of savings, but they just won't spend money on heat. So far as I can tell, it isn't the money; it's the principle of the thing.
I had a strange experience a couple of years ago when I was visiting a town named DongYang in ZheJiang Province, near YiWu, an area famous for wood carving and furniture. With a friend, I was visiting her uncle who had owned a large furniture factory and was obviously well-off since he had a 5-story detached home with a large private courtyard, and full of the most beautiful furniture.   My, he had a lovely home.
It was winter, maybe minus 5 degrees, and we were sitting in a gorgeous dining room around a huge round Chinese-style dining table, all wearing winter coats, hats, scarves, and we were wearing gloves while using our chopsticks to eat, because it was so cold. And it didn't even occur to this guy to turn on the heat.
And when I visit friends at their homes in Shanghai, they are always considerate and turn on the heat when I'm there (not too high, but enough to melt the ice), but it's obvious that this is not a normal thing for them and they seem almost uncomfortable doing it, as if they are breaking some kind of taboo.
But when these same people come to my home to visit, they seem to have no qualms about turning MY heating units up to 28 or even 30 degrees. So it isn't that they love being cold; maybe it is just the money. I still have no clear idea.
I once visited some friends in another city (again, in the winter) where we were sitting around the living room with our winter coats, hats, gloves, and covered with a comforter because it was so cold. We even had a little portable electric heater that we would pass around to warm each person's feet in turn. And again, the family wasn't poor and they had a huge heating unit in the living room, but be damned if they would turn it on. We even prepared a pail of scalding hot water so we could prevent an early death by soaking our feet - but we wouldn't turn on the heater.
In the farther Northern parts of China, this does not happen. It is colder and people heat their homes all the time. It is only in the more Central regions where the climate is more moderate, that this strange behavior (at least, strange to me) exists.
Someone told me that people from cold countries like Canada and Northern Europe complain a lot more about the cold than do people from warm places like Hong Kong. I think that's true because we treat the cold differently in Canada. To us, the cold is an aberration to be avoided or to protect ourselves from, so we always dress warmly and turn up the heat. Here, the cold is seen as part of the yearly circumstances and people accept it. It's never so cold that anyone freezes - you're just really uncomfortable.
The difference in attitude toward low temperatures is quite striking. Here, as in Rome (which has roughly the same climate), electricity is very expensive so people don't use it much. They heat only one room in a house. If you're watching TV you turn on the heat in the living room; when you go to bed, you turn up the heat in the bedroom. No point in heating the whole house and wasting all that money. That isn't something that would ever occur to us in Canada; we heat everything all the time, even when we're not at home.
Here, when I'm out of the house I turn off all the heat and turn it back on when I return. If the house is cold, most people here just put on more sweaters or jackets, or hats and scarves, in fact. I was in a small city on the weekend and had dinner at a friend's home (more on this below). It was cold, maybe only 5 degrees, but there was no heat on anywhere in the house. We all sat at the dining room table having a lovely meal, dressed in our coats and hats. (You can't use chopsticks when you're wearing gloves.)
Many shops keep their doors open all day, even when it's really cold, just as they did in Rome. I could never understand why the shop staff were willing to freeze all day, dressed in ski jackets in the stores, but they all did, both in Rome and here. And people in both places don't often turn on the lights either, because electricity is expensive; so they just prefer to freeze in the dark.
The offices are all heated, but the homes seldom are. I think only rich people and sissies like me keep the heat on in the whole house, and even then the temperature isn't high. They probably can't understand why I have such an aversion to being uncomfortable with the cold.
And during the summer it's the opposite. I can stand the heat without any difficulty, although I prefer the air conditioning to be on during the warmest days. But these people can't handle it well, and they have the A/C on 24/7 because it's too hot. Strange. They can't understand why I don't mind the heat, and I can't understand why they don't mind the cold.
I recently bought a lovely leather bag, which my friend Christine - my favorite translator - fell in love with. On our last trip to Suzhou she asked to trade bags so she could carry mine and pretend it was hers. I was touched.
Then the fact arose of her birthday that month, and I had an inspiration. I told her she could have the bag if she would do me a small favor. I want a permanent residence permit, and she wants the bag. If I marry a Chinese girl, I get a residence permit, and if she then divorces me, she gets the bag for a settlement. Chinese girls aren't very logical, and her husband wouldn't even have known because he was working in the US at the time.
Train travel here is really marvellous. Fast, inexpensive, quiet and comfortable. And frequent as hell; it seems like there are trains every 20 minutes to everyplace. We have G trains, D trains, T trains, K trains, N trains and more. I like the G trains; they're the very fast ones - 300 or 350 Kms/hr. Smooth, silent, very comfortable. The D trains are fast too - about 275 Kms./hr.. The T trains are good, not as fast but still much better than driving. Then we have K trains which are several steps down in everything except noise, which is up, but still have toilets.
Yesterday I went to Haining for the day. Shanghai to Haining - D train, 38 RMB, 275 Kms./hr., 30 minute happy snooze. For the return trip, I was anxious to get home because I was having dinner and playing snooker with some friends so I told the girl at the station ticket wicket to just get me on the next train.
Just my luck the crazy woman understood flawless Mandarin and did what I asked. Well, jeez. N train. Maximum speed 1.8 Kms/hr, less uphill. For all I know, it was probably still delivering supplies intended for the Korean war effort. We stopped at every town, hamlet, pig farm and strawberry patch. And then, four times, we had to pull onto a side track and wait, to let all the fast trains go by. More than two and a half hours to return to Shanghai. I wondered why the ticket was only 17 RMB.
I come from a world where if you leave first, you arrive first. Things are different here. But the girl in the ticket booth should have known better. She should have said, "I have a seat on a train leaving in 10 minutes. When does your pension expire?"
Chinese names are unusual in a way, in that there are common family names like Chen, Wang, Lee, etc., - equivalent to the Smith, Jones and Brown. And, while these words do have dictionary meanings when used in language, their use in names is generally done without regard to the underlying meaning.
Chinese given names are the same; any word or two can be used as someone's name, but with regard to the language usage meaning. And, where these meanings are considered, they are often done sort of in abstract. For example, I have a friend whose name is Huang Chun Xiang; the family name Huang means the color yellow, and her given names mean Fragrant Spring - pretty enough name, but we don't usually think about the meaning when we address someone. Good thing too, because I have another friend whose name means 'not crazy'. But normally it's just a sound that is stripped of its meaning when used this way.
We don't have this problem in English since names are not dictionary words and usually have no assigned meaning.
Most Chinese people in the cities, at least the younger generations, adopt English names in addition to the Chinese ones, but they tend to adopt the same freedom when choosing such names and we get some really interesting surprises.
For example, I have a friend whose English name is Snowsong. And when I was recently looking for a new apartment I met a real estate girl whose name was Catfly. Yes I'm serious, and no I didn't ask.
So we have: Runner, Shadow, Windy, Yoyo, Kinki, Panda, Summer, Pretty, Echo, Browning, Camera, Manson, Dragon, Tiger, King, Weir, Wham, and many that I've forgotten.
I sometimes tell my students and friends that the selection of names in English cannot be done in the same way as with Chinese, and that dictionary words cannot normally be used as names, but nobody seems to care much. They may have chosen the name because of a similarity in sound with their Chinese name, or for any other reason.
One thing I've learned is that some of these chosen names really suit people while other names absolutely do not. I can't explain that, but it is really true. I have a favorite student whose name is Gina and I couldn't think of a more perfect name for her. I have another student whose chosen name is Mickey (I think she chose it because she likes Mickey Mouse) and once again the name just seems so perfect for her. I have another who made up a name - Shanny - and for her it seems perfect too.
I have another pretty Shanghainese friend whose English name is Cynthia, and the only more suitable name I could imagine for her would be 'High Maintenance'. No, not THAT Cynthia .......
On the other hand, I have a good friend and former student who is so pretty and attractive and sexy and friendly and stuff, and her English name is Ella. That's worse than Mildred, for god's sake. It absolutely doesn't fit her and I never use it.
I have another student who calls herself Silver, and it's totally wrong for her. I tell her that zinc or aluminum would be far more suitable, but it doesn't seem to bother her enough to cause a change.
I have tried to think of appropriate names for some of my friends and students - at their request, in case you're nosy enough to ask - and many times I can't find one. Some of my students try a succession of names, and they all seem bad; just so out of character somehow.
All this made me think of the names of some of my friends and family in Canada. For example, "Frank" is a perfect name for my brother-in-law Frank. Everybody knows he was born for that name, and many people know first-hand what it means to have been Franked.
And I think that 'Sasha' is a perfect name for my son, Sasha. Can you imagine him called 'John' or 'Rex'? And 'Murray' is a perfect name for my nephew, Murray; can you imagine him called 'dipstick' or 'sharkbait'? Yeah, me too.
On our trip in Inner Mongolia, our tour bus stopped at a service station and we all got out for a break. Hot sun, no place to sit in the shade except for a small bench by a fruit stand. There were a grandmother, mother and fat 13-year-old kid travelling together. And they put the kid on the bench in the shade while the mother stood in the hot sun fanning the kid to keep him cool, and the grandmother squatted in the parking lot while slowly baking to death. I wanted so badly to kick that kid. I really did, especially when watching the mother waving her fan.
This one-child policy with the favorite sons leads to some excessive behavior that really isn't healthy. On the subway I'll often see a mother standing with bags of groceries while her kid sits. And far too often I will see mothers spoon-feeding 10 or 12-year-old boys. The 'little emperors' grow up thinking they are really important, catered to, and being treated like babies.
I sometimes go shopping with friends who have a 12 or 14-year-old son, and almost always the boy will hold his mother's arm the entire time. If I'd done that in grade school, I'd have had to change schools because my friends would have laughed me out of town.
Once, shopping with a friend and her 13 year old boy, his shoelace became untied, and there was his mother on her knees in the shopping mall, tying his shoelaces. That time, I wanted to kick both of them. My friend said she did it because she loved him, but when he finishes university and gets a job, who will be tying his shoes then?
The girls are ok, but the boys have every whim catered to, never having to do anything for themselves. They run a real risk of becoming a burden on everyone when they're older. And the women will be marrying little boys instead of men. It isn't universal, but I see much of that here and it really isn't good. The next generation will be better and different, but this one will be learning some hard lessons when they're forced to grow up. This is one of the few things I see here that really stirs my disapproval.