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Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2009-04-14 13:29
Subject: [travel] A few random observations about being in China
Security: Public
Tags:canada, china, personal, travel
The number four is unlucky here. The Mandarin word for four is very similar to the Mandarin word for death, so the hotel I'm in doesn't have a 4th floor or a 14th floor. It also doesn't have a 13th floor, thanks to Western superstition. Likewise the rooms — no rooms -04, -13, or -14 on any of the floors. Makes the elevator buttons kind of strange, for one thing.

Also, it's very interesting just wandering about on the streets. I spent my grade school years in Taiwan (in addition to having been born there). I also studied Mandarin in college. While I have no pretense of speaking the language, I can be polite in Mandarin, ask simple questions, make remarks along the lines of "The cow of my aunt gives milk. How are your socks?"

But I can hear Mandarin. Not understand it, but hear it. Hindi, for example, is gabble to me. I'm not familiar with the sound pattern, have absolutely no vocabulary, and no experience with it. Mandarin is more like Spanish to me. It hovers just beyond the horizon of comprehension, but I can hear it as a language. The word boundaries are clear, the phonology and prosody is familiar to me, I can pick out bits and pieces of the flow of conversation.

All of which brings me back to my childhood, in an interesting and pleasant way.

Another thing of note here is how utterly different the traffic is. I'd kill or be killed behind the wheel of an automobile in China. There's a dance to traffic so unlike Western driving. The trucks and busses and cars and bicycles and scooters and pedestrians slide around one another in a way that has me literally closing my eyes sometimes as we drive along. No following distance, no side clearance, lane markings highly optional, traffic lights at best treated as modest suggestions.

And it all works.

It works because everyone is following the same rules. If I drove according to the Oregon driver's handbook, I'd leave a trail of utter chaos in my wake. I wonder if people have done traffic studies on this kind of flow, as I suspect the underlying math and moment-by-moment decision dynamics point to a rather different flow model that traffic engineering in the United States.

People here are polite and impolite in different ways. No one stares openly at me except little kids and a few brassy old ladies. Yet everyone looks. If I turn suddenly and look across a room, every face is pointed somewhere else in that manner that only happens when no one wants to be caught looking. And people are unfailingly friendly. Smiles, greetings, helpful wherever possible; much more so than Americans generally are for foreigners, especially foreigners who don't speak the language. At the same time, god help you if you think waiting your turn in line is a good idea. The American conception of getting on or off a plane, for example, is just laughable here. The great push feels rude. I have finally gotten to the point of being willing to elbow the old women who are elbowing me, simply for the sake of getting through a gate somewhere, but it feels so odd.

When I go to Canada, for example, the differences are subtle and the commonalities obvious. Here in China the differences are so obvious as to be overwhelming. What I'm really enjoying is the process of rediscovering more and more of the commonalities.

Originally published at jlake.com.

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threeoutside
User: threeoutside
Date: 2009-04-14 21:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Interesting stuff.

I noticed similar things about the vehicular traffic in Paris (as an observer only!) It seemed to me that people drive the way they walk on the streets - it just flows, and I saw whole lines of cars and lorries waiting patiently for an old man to hobble slowly across the crosswalk, then proceed on politely in their own way. I never heard a horn honk or saw any driver making rude gestures to other drivers. It was fascinating, and like you, I decided American driving rules would be deadly there. This was in the center of Paris, the single-digit arrondissements. Maybe it's different in the burbs.
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User: swan_tower
Date: 2009-04-14 21:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I know what you mean about hearing a foreign language as a language. For me, Mandarin falls in the "gabble" camp, but Japanese is a language even when I can't understand most of it, and so is Spanish. (Korean's weird: to my ear, it's the language that sounds like it's Japanese but I can't understand a single word. I have no idea what that means for the relative phonologies and/or syntax.)

I suspect that's one of the first milestones in language acquisition, before you get to the bigger ones of thinking or dreaming in a foreign tongue.
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bodandra
User: bodandra
Date: 2009-04-14 21:50 (UTC)
Subject: Sounds similar -
- to what I saw in Bogota back in the days when I was 15. I adapted to it, but I will never want to drive there.
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Jim Rittenhouse
User: jrittenhouse
Date: 2009-04-14 21:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I can tell Mandarin from Japanese and from Cantonese by sound pretty easily; Korean doesn't register with me for some reason, much like a Welsh accent doesn't.

I can't tell which from which in regard to Indo-Aryan languages, but I can tell them by sound every time. I remember being on a plane in front of a bunch of guys chattering to each other, and they *sounded* like they were speaking something Indo-Aryan, but I was at a loss as to which one. I drove me so nuts that I finally buttonholed one of them and asked. Romani, they said...the Gypsy language. Which is, after all, Indo-Aryan.

In China, I was amazed at the rudeness in Guangzhou airport; one BIG queue sitting outside the big gate to about 12-16 others, and they let everyone in all at once, and Katie Bar The Door. We had Baby and Tons Of Baby Crap with us, so we didn't move all that smoothly, and I got to use my limited Mandarin to tell people to goddamn well back off, bud. "Bu shir" got to be my most commonly used phrase, and it really did grind at me to be all that up-yours-buddy. Not my style.

I got a lot of look-at-that-bigass-gwailo mocking amusement from the locals in the marketplace in Guangzhou. Very irritating, as was the Americans-are-stupid-and-rich routines from some folks. The more exposed they were to outsiders, the more they dealt with us in a reasonable manner (to our standards, of course).

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Paul Weimer
User: princejvstin
Date: 2009-04-14 22:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Another thing of note here is how utterly different the traffic is. I'd kill or be killed behind the wheel of an automobile in China. There's a dance to traffic so unlike Western driving. The trucks and busses and cars and bicycles and scooters and pedestrians slide around one another in a way that has me literally closing my eyes sometimes as we drive along. No following distance, no side clearance, lane markings highly optional, traffic lights at best treated as modest suggestions.

I've heard that Indian cities are very similar, and furthermore that car horns are used as an aural method of communication.

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mallory_blog
User: mallory_blog
Date: 2009-04-14 22:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
akkk - does that make Obama (44) double death???
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lauriemann
User: lauriemann
Date: 2009-04-14 22:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Only to the Chinese neo-cons... ;->

Jay, thanks for the trip reports.
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sonyamshannon
User: sonyamsipes
Date: 2009-04-14 22:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Re: traffic

I have said a few times that an if an alien species were introduced to humanity by watching us drive, they would be utterly amazed at the fact that countries & cultural groups have such a problem getting along.

I mean -- we can all cooperate while we are driving, follow similar rules, pay attention to the things that might 'offend' our fellow drivers and cause snags - turn on our signals when we are letting them know that we wish to diverge from the common 'theme'. What a shame that we can't do that on a larger scale? If we brough our petty differences regarding race, sex, religion, creed, social standing, etc down to the granular level of traffic patterns -- there would be road rage & carnage everywhere you looked... just goes to show that we *can* all get along if we just agree to follow the same rules and respect each other's boundaries.

Sorry to hijack... toodles.
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willyumtx
User: willyumtx
Date: 2009-04-14 22:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
But many people here (Austin, TX) do NOT signal when turning.
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sonyamshannon
User: sonyamsipes
Date: 2009-04-14 23:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I understand -- yet the fact remains, that if we were not all following a similar mode of thought (lets wax transcendental here) there would be many more accidents and lives lost than there really are. Like what Jay said about the 'traffic dance' in China... I have heard the same thing said about India, Saudi Arabia, etc. It's almost endemic of the populace that lives there... but as we can learn how to adapt/weave into their traffic dance, so shouldn't we be able to translate that into cross-cultural tolerance & communication?
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willyumtx
User: willyumtx
Date: 2009-04-15 19:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I know what you are getting at. And it sounds nice in theory. But I am cynical and point out how there are going to be "cheaters" in the system. And the traffic analog does not work very well since there are so many who breach the rules.

Granted, a majority do follow the flow (most of the time) since traffic chaos is not an everyday event.

I guess I'm just a glass half empty type when it comes to large groups. Especially regarding traffic.
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Bob
User: yourbob
Date: 2009-04-14 22:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"moment-by-monet decision dynamics"

I assume it's a typo, but I think it's a BEAUTIFUL typo. I think it works wonderfully to explain it.
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willyumtx
User: willyumtx
Date: 2009-04-14 22:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Do NOT give anyone a gift of a watch or clock.
Do NOT cut anyone's hair in a place of business.

Have you had people foist food on to your plate yet?
Any fights over who pays the bill for a group meal?

I like the observations in this post. Thanks!

*pictures of food!*
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nojay
User: nojay
Date: 2009-04-14 23:03 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The Japanese for "4" is "shi" which means "death" so they usually replace it with "yon". "7" is "shichi" and it is normally replaced by "nana". The numbers themselves don't seem to be thought unlucky or particularly avoided.
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Samantha Ling
User: lingtm
Date: 2009-04-15 02:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This reminds me of the time my brother, his wife and I went to dim sum by ourselves. We were sitting there for a good 20 minutes and only got like 3 dishes, but the moment my mom showed up, we had a table full. It was only because my mom was shouting at the staff to come over with their carts. And apparently that was the norm because everyone else was like that. I'd never noticed until then because my mom would order everything. It would magically all appear on our table.
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Candace
User: oubliet
Date: 2009-04-15 07:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I remember when I went to Guangzhou in 1986 with my parents. I don't know about now, but back then, an obvious foreigner got a little more "personal space" allotted than the normal sardine-packed shoving before the counter in stores and in lines for the train, etc. Since I ~looked~ like a local, I was shoved along with the rest, to my growing annoyance.

Shoving back feels weird, though. I found it difficult to do unless I got really peaved. After about a month of traveling around there like that, I was starting to want to avoid going out on the sidewalks.

I recall being ~very~ glad to wrap up the trip and go home.

I wonder, sometimes, if I'd have an easier time of adapting to the shoving now that I'm older.

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mevennen
User: mevennen
Date: 2009-04-15 09:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I went to Guangzhou about 15 years ago and everyone stared - they didn't do the looking away thing either, but would come up close and have a really good eyeball at you.

On the last trip, I didn't notice this at all - wasn't sure whether this was because the Uighur are more used to people who look Western-ish, due to their C Asian connections, but I didn't notice it in Xi'an either.

A friend of mine works in HK on the S China Morning Post and has been reduced to posting instructions in the lift on how to deal with Westerners (ie don't slam the lift door in someone's face just as they get to it). Her colleagues can't see why she gets so upset.


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Lawrence M. Schoen
User: klingonguy
Date: 2009-04-15 12:57 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
wonderful commentary on language, sir. for me, the trick is hearing juncture, so the phonemes stop flowing endlessly one to the next, and instead become discrete units and words.

your description of driving reminded me instantly of Niven and Pournelle's description of traffic among moties.
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Erin
User: perimyndith
Date: 2009-04-15 21:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I studied Mandarin from the 9th grade through grad school and always was just awful at the langauge, I mean, really pathetic -- I only kept at it because I'm stubborn to a stupid extent. But I do so enjoy hearing Mandarin spoken, even though (especially after 9 years) I can understand about 1 word in 50.

My husband, on the other hand, says listening to people speak Mandarin is like listening to an argument you can't comprehend.
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