Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Not in any nuclear arms build-up/world domination kind of way, or in some sort of human rights type of thing. I mean socially. What’s happening in society here this minute?

Literally, officially, ostensibly, evidentially. Of all the astonishing things I hear and see in China, this one went straight in at No.1.
All Chinese citizens must have an identity card. They have a big long number on them and their date-of-birth. They’re very important things, almost sacred. But as with most things in China, everything’s open to negotiation. They can be changed. Not happy with how old you’re getting? Then let’s look at that. My impeccable sources tell me a trend has emerged in recent years whereby people are simply having their date of birth changed. With the right guanxi (remember that all important word for connections), and an amount of goodwill, citizens can, and are, going to the right officials and having one, two or a few years lopped off their life. If you just feel like a change it does far more than a new hair colour. And last longer.

An amount of goodwill, yesterday. In fact, this is one
example where guanxi matters a lot more than cold,
hard cash.
We’re not saying some jaded 31-year-old can run around feeling like a teenager again. But with the stroke of a pen, 25/1/1970 can easily become 25/1/1973, and that annoying “41” next to “age” on all your forms can suddenly be a nicer “38”.
I know what you’re thinking. But this trend – let’s call it fakeage - is not just about vain women freaking out about the passing of time. After all, no amount of waving around an ID card can erase those wrinkles around your eyes. You’ll need a quick trip to Seoul and it’s famous cosmetic surgery district for that. Women are said by my sources to account for most of this age manipulation, but men are dabbling too. Say you’re a 33-year-old guy, with a dead-end job and no wife. If you’re suddenly 29 and have so few things going for you, you don’t sound like such a loser – particularly to someone who might become that wife.

"I'm really only 28! Honest!"
Another, more serious, category, which is possibly also the largest one, concerns people wanting to delay their retirement to keep their income-generating years going a little longer. Men working for the government must retire at 60, and women at 55.
There is also talk, on a lower level, of parents wanting to change the date of birth of their offspring to give them a luckier-sounding birthdate. (See previous post on lucky numbers). The 4th of the 4th, ’04 would doubtless curse a child for life, leaving them less able to find a good job with which to support their parents. The 8th of the 8th, or even the 8th of the 5th if the parents aren’t feeling too bold, would be considered far more lucky.
This may all sound fairly incredible, but age has always been a little rubbery in China. Under traditional Chinese ways, a baby, when it comes out of its mother’s womb, is called a one-year-old. Then, the age goes up by one every Chinese new year. So, and I am not making this up, let’s say a baby boy is born the day before Chinese new year. Straight away he is one. The next day the Chinese would call him a two-year-old. Is it any wonder a lot of westerners look at Chinese kids and think they’re small for their age. They’re probably whoppers! Big lumps of things.

A young Chinese person, yesterday. He looks great for five.
It can all get a bit confusing. People can quote their Chinese age and their western age, and in fact probably prefer the latter if they’re a bit age-conscious. Since it’s all a bit too much ma fan, Chinese people usually ask what Chinese zodiac sign people are – horse, rabbit, tiger, etc. There are 12 of these, each lasting a year. So from this, people can calculate to within a year how old someone is, unless they’re really bad at estimating age and make a guess which is 12 years out. This animal reckoning is also a good way to find out someone’s age while upholding that other key tenet of Chinese society – politeness.

First it was fake bums, to slip inside the underwear to give a woman that Jennifer Lopez look. I saw some recently at Beijing Ya Show market, where the assistant explained she did not have the space to stock the latest must-have derriere – the Kardashian.
Now it’s phony bellies. Pregnant ones. Now, and I think I’m getting this right, women want to look pregnant. Various websites here this week have reported online sales of “realistic-looking” pregnancy bellies have been on the rise recently. The silica gel pre-partum prostheses are said to feature everything a woman could want in a fake pregnant belly – flesh colour, human skin texture and a high degree of comfort. You can get them to replicate three stages of pregnancy. And it’s not because of Santa costumes, because people here don’t do Christmas.

You can, erm, enhance your figure with this style of butt,
or another kind which slips inside your intimate apparel.

"Honey - I'm just going to pop out for a minute."
Now I definitely fit that type sociologists call “a male confused about his role in the 21st century”.
Now what should I say? “Honey, you’re butt is looking super-big these days!” Or “That’s one huge gut you’ve got there darling!”
What’s going on?
The news of the belly boom has spawned various possible explanations on China blogs. There are the mild – such as women might be trying to look pregnant to get a seat on the bus for a nice long sleep on the way home. Others have suggested women might be using them to help them panhandle for money, which sounds unlikely as beggars surely have better things to spend money on. The bellies are said to cost between $US80 and $250, presumably depending on your desired trimester.
Others have suggested more sinister motives. In China there exists a black market for the purchase of babies, again to grow up to help couples in their old age. It would look fairly suspicious if a woman with no big bump suddenly produced a baby for all her neighbours to see.
As usual in media-speak, only one thing is certain. There is always someone gaining from something. In this case it’s those people with the rare foresight to think there would be a market for making something which made women look like they were pregnant.


If there’s one thing this dynamic, modernising, can-do society loves, it’s a good nap.
Whether it’s because they’ve got up too early to do their tai chi, stayed up too late watching their new modern TVs, or because these Chinese beds are notoriously hard, few places are deemed too obscure to grab a few winks in the daytime.

Certainly one of the most popular is any big
furniture store, in this case IKEA. If you do
it right, a quick test run of a bed or sofa can
turn into a few hours of very comfortable sleep.

Or an armchair.

Public buses usually look like a cart-away service for the
chronically narcoleptic, but any mode of transport is
pretty good. These three-wheel flat-tray bikes are
very popular.

For sheer numbers though, few places beat a nice, warm fast
food restaurant. Here you can order just a token bit of food
or drink - or not - and make a table your own. Remember,
this is for the ordinary folk. We're not talking about the

The best part is, noone who works in these places ever
shows any inclination to gently nudge the sleeper on
the shoulder and remind them that this is a fast food
diner and that they did not book a sleeping compartment.
Perhaps they've been in the same situation themselves.

My favourite: Burger still in hand, mid-text and ... zonk.


And finally, the Tiger Father and family are off for a holiday. See you in the new year.

I could waffle on for ages about how much you mean to me, Dear Reader, but as a bloke I'd rather let a 45 cent card I bought in the "English greeting cards" section of my local shop here in Beijing say it all for me.

You can read the big bit. Underneath there's more heartfelt
sentiment. It reads: "It is the most approplate tlme to show
you our thanks." I really couldn't have said it any better.
Happy Christmas.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


The Tooth Fairy died before we’d even met her.
There she was, I imagined, lying dead on a high-stacked bed made of little white teeth, wings all limp, her little fairy face frozen as flies buzzed round her mouth and eyes. Who knew when she’d be found?
It sounds like a peaceful passing: Tooth Fairy Dies In Her Sleep, whispered the Clarion.
In fact it was a death of utter violence. On the verge of her first appearance at our house, Toothy was ripped to shreds in a blaze of words from our then five-year-old daughter, like a pizza man met at the door with a hail of bullets.
It happened before the loss of Lani’s first tooth, often a nervous time for children. It can also be a nervous, stomach-turning time for parents. I freely admit I can’t do it. I can’t watch a child happily wobbling their loose tooth around like it’s some sort of toy designed to cause revulsion in grown-ups. I would gladly give my daughter a drum kit she could play all day, or even a violin, in exchange for a vow not to show me her wobbling tooth ever again.
They say: “Look Dad! Look how wobbly my tooth is!” And I say “Nooo that’s alright,” as I squeeze my eyelids shut. I’m taken back to when I was six, not for a wobbly tooth but for when Uncle Billy used to make us touch his glass eye. This I really can remember.
“Tooch me glass aaih,” he’d say in his thick accent from Newcastle, England, as he pulled my straining arm towards his face. “It’s okaih. Ah cahn’t feel it.”
“Yes but I don’t want to feel it,” I’d say, all too late. Don’t make children touch your glass eye when you grow up, children.

A child wobbling her loose tooth. Can you believe
they let people put pictures like this on the internet?

If I can’t touch an eyeball, I’ll be able to get my shudders for a few years from watching the teeth fall out of my daughters’ heads.
Initially, Lani wasn’t too happy about this rite of passage, which is where the Tooth Fairy came into it, or didn’t.
My wife the logician and I weren’t wholeheartedly behind the idea of the tooth fairy. My wife even has a problem with Santa Claus. I disagree with her on this view, but will defend til the death her right to hold it. That’s because it makes me feel better when she criticises me. “Don’t worry, Trev,” I tell myself. “This is a woman who hates Santa, so what hope do you have?”

Of course when I were a lad we never had any
talk of pretty little fairies flitting in to take
our teeth away. Oh no. My idea of the
Tooth Fairy was pretty much this.

In any event, Lani took any debate about the Tooth Fairy fib out of the equation. She was reluctant, in a hysterical sort of way, about losing a front bottom tooth, especially when her mother suggested pulling it with a cotton noose. I tried to help in the traditional style handed down by the men in my family.
“I’ll go get my pliers!” I said. I thought it was funny, anyway.
Once Lani stopped screaming, and her mother stopped glaring, I tried talk of financial inducement.
“If you put the tooth under your pillow, the Tooth Fairy will come and you’ll get some cold hard cash,” I said.
Without any of us seeing her move, our daughter drew her gun and shot the Tooth Fairy down. She’d have none of this talk of having her tooth pulled and none of this deal-sweetening rubbish either.
“The Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist!” she barked. Cue surprised looks from parents, distress from four-year-old sister Evie.
“She does so exist!” said the sibling, citing Susie at school. “Susie lost her tooth and put it under her pillow and got ten kuai!”
More shocking than her sister’s denial, and my self-dating choice of “Susie” as a fake name, was the price. Ten Chinese yuan? That’s almost $US2.00! It were ten cents when I were a lad. Plus Lani had one more molar than usual. We could have been staring at $42 for the whole set!
But Lani, who has read lots of fairy books, saved us with an argument of inordinately mature logic that drew gasps from the jury, especially my wife the former school debater.
“The Tooth Fairy is a fairy. Fairies are not real. So the Tooth Fairy is NOT REAL!” she thundered, before closing her mouth tight again. All that was missing was an ‘ergo’. The defence rested.
Evie wept.

How most young girls imagine the mythical
nymph who comes into their bedroom
at night bestowing little rewards.
Of course in our house, we don't believe
in fairies.

But this guy clearly does.

My wife and I looked at each other, trying to guess the next step. Wasn’t much we could say, really. “Any further witnesses, Evie?” I said.
Evie, who hadn’t changed out of her school clothes, considered her options.
“The Tooth Fairy does exist and I’m wearing my school uniform!” This sounded less logical. But given her surroundings it might have been cannily thought out. Logic might sometimes fail but the presence of a uniform will carry most arguments in China.
But not this one. Lani had a look on her face as if she was arguing with the Flat Earth Society, a Holocaust denier, or the Boyz II Men fanclub. A fairy was a fairy.
We parents were looking in real trouble now. But eventually, the “You might swallow it in your sleep” warning won out. The tooth was pulled, of course with a lot less fuss than Lani envisaged. Indeed, the night when teeth three and four came out – her top middle ones – Lani yanked the last one herself.
With her thumb and forefinger.
God it was awful. (Alas I couldn’t look away for I had volunteered for camera duty, unlike my far braver wife. She is a doctor, after all, I should add in my defence).
So instead of having Lani’s teeth carted away by some wealthy little beast from the spirit world, we all decided we would hold onto the four teeth as a sentimental keepsake. I put them in a glass of salty water to clean them, and then imagined the day when, as an old man with a grandchild on my lap, I would take them out and look at them while recalling the early years of our beautiful daughter.
Then our maid chucked them down the sink.
She found what looked like a shallow glass of water, tipped it out, washed and dried it. Ker-bang! All over.
I was crestfallen, and sorry for my daughter. But then I sprang into action. It was in fact a rare moment of opportunity for the house parent to rise above mundanity.
I studied the plumbing. Thankfully there was a little cup-like bit beneath the junction of downpipe and exit pipe, designed specifically to catch diamonds before they are swished away. I unscrewed it and discovered two things: 1. Lani’s two little bottom teeth had been saved. 2. The pipes hadn’t been cleaned, ever.
Now, there’s probably a worse experience than sliding two human teeth around in a four-millimetre thick layer of smelly, green brown slime in a bit of plumbing, but I don’t know what it is. And I’m very sure there was no mention of it in the maternity ward five years ago.
Still, for the rest of the day I got to play Dad the Hero, albeit one who after his teeth-in-slime adventure looked like he was sucking a lemon in a pit of warm sick.
So we will never have to break it to Lani that the Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist. But I ended the episode firmly believing in a God of Parenting – a vengeful god with with a sick sense of humour, who ensures we never get off from these lucky breaks scot free.

American rapper Flavor Flav has created
the myth that he grew up hard in a poor
neighbourhood amid squalour and
 desperation. The truth, however, is his
upbringing was one of privilege provided
by his banker father and dermatologist
mother. When little Flavor's teeth fell out,
Mr and Mrs Flav gave him so much
supposed "Tooth Fairy" money he was
able to buy a complete new set -
made of solid gold!  

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


Today we continue our look into the rich, fascinating, amusing, maddening, silly, old, ancient and mysterious world of Chinese culture with Part II of our Glossary of Middle Kingdom terms.

Let’s start with the horse, one of my favourite things. I am a horse, as in I was born in the year of the horse. And my name means horse. Westerners here take a Chinese name often sounding like their real name. The Chinese don’t like non-Chinese food, or names. My surname being Marshallsea, my interpreter suggested the Chinese surname Ma, which means horse. I also like betting on them, which is, alas, no good to me here. As I often complain – 5000 years of civilisation and still no racetrack! (Gambling is, strictly speaking, illegal in China, like so many other things that are, strictly speaking, illegal. This surprises many westerners used to seeing Chinese riding their luck in their home countries. It is precisely because of that love of superstition that the Communist government has kept such a tight rein on gambling. “God – can you imagine?!” you can hear them thinking in the corridors of power). My point is the horse features heavily in China.

MA SHANG (Pron: ma shung): To do something quickly. To get on one’s horse, shang meaning “on top of”. So: “Ayi, have you finished making those dumplings yet?” “I’m on my horse”. “Maybe that’s the problem.”
MA TONG (ma toong): The horse bucket. The toilet. It sounds like slang, but it’s not really. It’s the word for it.
MA NIAO (ma nee-ow): Horse urine. Reassuringly universal in that it is slang for bad beer.

A bottle of China's biggest-selling brand of
horse wee, yesterday. Note how the
photographer has opted not to pour it
into the glass. Or even open it.
MA MA HU HU (ma ma hoo hoo): An all-time favourite – horse horse, tiger tiger. It’s slang for something which is a bit mediocre, OK but not great, neither one thing nor the other. (Tiger is lao hu). “How’s your Chinese?” “Horse horse, tiger tiger.” Trouble is, if you tell a local your Chinese is “ma ma hu hu”, they’ll often think that by knowing the slang for bad, you’re actually pretty good, and will start speaking to you, pretty fast.
Non-horse terms:

FENG SHUI (fung shway): Another of these mystical eastern practices which is essentially the ancient art of making your house or office lucky. Hang a mirror here so the evil spirit will be reflected back out, often with a hissing “Go’orn git!” Block a doorway here so any money coming into the house can’t get out again. This might well stem from the old days when paper money, which was invented here, would blow into a courtyard house and blow back out again. Feng shui might well fit into another key facet of Chinese life - respect for ancestors. Someone once thought this stuff up. If we turn around now and say this is ridiculous, it’s making that ancestor look silly. Perish the thought.

This is the design for a house with ideal feng shui. All the
doors and corridors are arranged so that any good fortune
which walks through the front door will have a hard time
getting its way back out again if it decides to leave.

This house, on the other hand, is said to have "terrible"
feng shui, with all the good luck rising up to a corner of
the basement, where it is hard to access.

LUCK/FORTUNE/THE WHOLE BOX AND DICE: The Chinese are famously superstitious, especially in the south. Numbers are important. Eight is lucky. The word for it – ba ­– sounds a little like the fa in fa cai, also known as fat choy, which is Cantonese for “make lots of money”. Don’t think about it too long or it gets tenuous. What is true is lots of caesarean sections are requested for August 8, the 8th of the 8th, to give a child a lucky birthday. However, four is desperately unlucky, as the word for it – si (pronounced suh), sounds like the word for ‘death’ with a different tone and so should be avoided at all times. Therefive, most modern buildings (it’s a relatively recent thing in the north) don’t have a fourth floor. Or a 14th, 24th, etc.

In our building they've really covered their bases by also
not having an unlucky-for-some-westerners 13th floor.
Trying to teach your kids how to count whilst in an
elevator is horrible.

However, really tall buildings don’t mind having floors 40 through 49. I thought they might miss a whole ten floors, but of course it’s only unlucky if it ends in a four, stupid! The government has had campaigns against superstition, which after all doesn’t sit too neatly amidst the whole socialist philosophy: “Comrades! Let’s all work hard and make a productive state!” “Not today silly – it’s the fourth of April!”

MAO TAI/ER GUO TOU (maow tie/ar gwoh toe): Variants of China’s best known home grown liquor bai jiu – clear spirits distilled from sorghum. It’s fire water, kind of the equivalent of Japan’s rice-based sake, only with a palate more reminiscent of petrol and with a fermented potato-peel aftertaste of approximately three days. Also, sake has an alcohol content of about 15 per cent. These Chinese demon drinks go up to about 60 per cent. Imbibers will the next day often report a feeling similar to having swallowed a wire brush, and then having had that wire brush pumped up and down several times in their throats by a large, heavily-tattooed man with a shaven head. These drinks have a way of getting into the body’s system so that for a few days you’re still smelling it on your skin and burping up its taste.

A bottle of the cheapest form
of this drink, erguotou.
Sometimes, when you're out
and really really drunk, it
seems like a good idea to
get on the erguotou. Don't.
It never, ever, is.

NAO DAI (now die): Not as bad as that rough pronunciation guide suggests. It’s the skull, or head – nao being brain, and dai meaning bag. So the word for skull is essentially “the old brain bag”. Again it sounds like it should be slang, but it’s not.

PEKING OPERA: Another ancient art showcasing the ability of people to wear lots of make-up, cross dress and, using only the voice, to replicate the noise made when a circular saw slices through a partially-frozen cat. It goes for ages and ages. Like five hours or something. People have ducked out for a wedding and come back to see the finish. They now have a shortened version for the tourists which puts them through only an hour of it. But in a recent exit poll of 100 visitors who saw one of these shows, 93 per cent still rated it as less favourable than eating ice cream with a cavity in a molar. Still, don’t take my word - go see for yourself. No don’t. Take the easy way and just take the word of someone who has seen it for you. Well, I’ve never actually seen it. Someone saw it for me, after someone saw it for them. Oh look it’s probably really good.

You have to hand it to the costume makers
and make-up artists. If only they could sing.

GUANXI (gwanshee): A major factor in the Chinese way of doing things. It means “connections”, having friends in the right places to help. Particularly important and pervasive in business. Can be enhanced with that other great Chinese invention, paper money.

MA FAN (pron: mah fahn): A great Chinese word meaning “hassle”, but a little bit more. It can be too much ma fan for an ayi to darn a sock. Equally, our ayi used “a whole lot of ma fan” to describe the Japanese earthquake. A well liked term as it is best hissed out in whiny, bitter tones.

LAO WAI (laow why): Us. The foreigners. Previously thought to be derogatory, a bit like “long nose”, but it really isn’t. Down south, westerners are called gweilo – which translates as “foreign devil” or “white ghost”. But “lao” is actually a term of respect with which one addresses their elders, like Mister. And “wai” simply refers to “the outside”. Perhaps in the old days the colonial officials regarded as offensive anything that wasn’t “Sir” or “Lord”. What is striking, however, is how and when the Chinese call us this. I was standing at the checkout in IKEA recently when the assistant asked two Chinese men in front of me if the item on the conveyor belt was theirs. They said: “No it’s the laowai’s”. I didn’t take offence, but I did wonder how it would sound if we were in the Sydney IKEA and I’d said: “No it’s this Chinese guy’s”, or “No, it’s this black man’s”. We used to be rare, but not so much now. Occasionally, especially out of Beijing, I’ll still hear passers-by comment: “Lao wai!” I always look back and say: “Chinese person!”


It's freezing cold. Windy enough to blow a dog off a chain.
There are all these little green leaves blowing off trees.
Your job is to take a big broom and sweep them all up off
the street. For it's OK to have people going to the bathroom
all over the place, but leaves in the streets? It's beyond the pale.
So you take your broom and you sweep. Then the wind
blows them all over the place again. Then you sweep
them up again. Then the wind blows them around again.
Sometimes you have to run to keep up with the leaves.

Then someone drives by and messes everything up again.

It's enough to make you want to give up. But then
you keep sweeping, it keeps blowing, you keep sweeping,
until at 5.00pm, you can stop. There are lots of people in
China, but we have jobs for most of them.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


As a modest gambler, I’ve never had a problem taking money from friends. As a modest giver to charities, I’ve never had a problem giving money to the needy. As an encourager of book reading by my children, I have always loved seeing them read.
How things can go horribly wrong.
At four-and-a-half, Evie encountered her first school read-a-thon. Great, we all thought. She’d have a week to gather sponsors, read as many books as she could, and collect money.
“Yaay!” said big sister Lani. “You’re gonna be rich!”
How my little capitalist heart pounded. Then, my charitable heart found its feet. Still, I grew emotional over the genetic symmetry of it all. When I was nine, I completed a walk-a-thon and raised a princely $15. When my mother informed me all proceeds would be going “to the missions”, I was shattered. I took weeks to recover. I made sure I provided full disclosure that this read-a-thon would be helping poor Chinese children.

Evie at the start of her read-a-thon. OK, Mister Dog smokes
a pipe. And he befriends a young lad and takes him home for
the night. But it was my favourite book as a kid.

Four-and-a-half might sound early for a read-a-thon by western standards, but schooling in Asia is different. Evie isn’t such an avid reader - not as much as her six-year-old sister Lani. I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging about Lani’s bookreading, but I will admit she’s stopped trying to explain to me what the hell Remembrances of Things Past is all about.
At least Evie wasn’t such an avid reader, until this whole cash incentive thing.
I looked at the read-a-thon information sheet and straight away I was struck by one thing – it had lots of writing on it. But, adroitly, I found the spaces where we had to write our sponsors and books. We signed people up. I thought 10 RMB (better known as kwai) per book sounded fair. If Evie read one a day that would be 70 kwai, or roughly $US10. Most people could happily part with that. For some I asked five kwai per book.
We signed 14 sponsors, mostly from our Beijing apartment compound. My wife and I committed to 10 kwai per book. I volunteered two grandparents and an aunt for the same. This would be a mild distraction, I thought, something I’d probably have to resuscitate every couple of days.
Thankfully day one was a Sunday, so Evie would have the time to read that she wouldn’t on schooldays. She started with The Colour Kittens. My wife and I noticed how her reading had improved.
“Great stuff,” I said. “Shall we go outside?”
“Another book!” she said.
“Oh. Okay then. Good for you!”
Evie read another, Rascal Goes Fishing, and then Mister Dog, making sure I logged  them. You can never steer your child away from reading, so when she chose book four, after wondering for a moment who this child was, I mustered an enthusiastic response of “Righty-oh!”
Finally I got outside to play. Then after bath came books five and six. I figured Evie was already up past 500 kwai. Superb. If she read no more books that week, her job was done.

Marcel Proust - what was he thinking?
No come on, what was he thinking?

On the Monday morning she bounced out of bed with an enthusiasm previously seen only at Christmas and raced for the bookshelf. Seven. Eight. I wrote them down, still beaming with pride. Unlike the young me, after all, Evie knew she wouldn’t be keeping the booty.
After school she read two more, then another after bath. Day three and the output dropped again, so it had gone from six to five to four. Still, that was 15.
By this point I was starting to get a little edgy. I wondered if I’d got something wrong.
“Wow, sweetie – at this rate you’ll be taking lots of money from everyone,” I warned. Evie smiled back, and read another book.
On day four she only read one. OK, I thought, the enthusiasm is waning. One more on the Thursday made 17. I could face my friends and family after all.
But Friday is stay-up-late day, isn’t it? Suddenly Evie had renewed vigor. She threw her schoolbag down and hit the bookshelf again.
“Daddy – I want to read more books,” she said. “There’s only one day to go!”
“TV?” I said. “Computer game? Ice cream?”
“No Daddy.”
“Ah, well, reading’s OK I suppose,” I winced. Eighteen soon became 19 and my head started spinning.
“OK sweetie that’s enough now,” I said in my firm voice, which went as unnoticed as ever as book 20 was pulled down and read.
 “DINNER!” I yelled as I carried Evie to the table. I had a feeling this was getting out of hand. I checked the list again, and figured she was on roughly 100 kwai per book. This was bad. Well, good, but a little bit bad. Before bed she reached 21, one called Things That Are The Most In The World. I feared she’d be in the next edition.

A large pile of Chinese money, yesterday. 

At last the final day arrived, with enough Saturday activities to surely keep the reading at bay. But again our little convert bounced up and at ‘em. I listened to my little girl reading for her noble cause. Every word ticked over another dollar sign, each with its own deathly clunk.
“Yes yes, Gruffalo Schmuffalo,” I said as I wrote.
What had I done?! We were raising so much money for charity!
But what could I do? If I handed the form in with lots of cross-outs and adjusted amounts, surely the fraud squad would be called. Would that look good, taking money - food and books - from the hands of poor Chinese children? With a noble, if hard-gulping determination, I resolved that under no circumstances could I dissuade my child from reading.
Evie opened book 23. “PUT THE BLOODY BOOK DOWN!” I barked. She gave me a weird look and started reading, something that halfway through started to sound dreadfully annoying. I did what most parents do when their child is enjoying something and started vacuuming. Still she read. She was like some kind of savant.
Mercifully, we had soccer. But the afternoon was free. So in went #24 - Little Jimmy Something and the Frigging Something.
“Twenty four now Daddy!”
“Careful now,” I said. “You don’t want to be a nerd now do you? You want to be popular, don’t you?”
But after bed, my tired girl managed #25, Harold And The Outrageous Money Grab, before finally finishing with book 26, Rascal Alienates All His Friends.
“That’s it. Goodnight. Proud of you and all that,” I said as I hit the lights. I walked off, ashen faced, to calculate the damage.

Do a google image search for RMB and you'll get
a picture of a guy eating a scorpion. Still, China's
currency system doesn't always make
this much sense. 

Later that week Evie’s school announced that their three campuses, which total 250 students, had raised 16,740 kwai ($US2,635).
Evie raised 2,520 kwai of it, or $US400.
Put another way, one-250th of the student body raised more than an eighth of the total. I think. You do the math. Clearly I’m not much good at it.
I was consoled by one thought: none of our friends could freak out, could they? Imagine the names I’d call them for their shallow souls? Still, one was almost knocked off her feet to be asked for 260 kwai, having expected around 50. I apologised as she scrambled round her house for banknotes.
When I delivered the money the school’s Chinese receptionist turned bright red and started giggling. As I left I looked again at that information sheet. It said: “So if someone sponsors your child for 1 kwai per book and they read 20 books, that’s 20 kwai!”
Looking back, it’s hard to know where it all went so spectacularly right. Did I ask too much per book? Did everyone else ask too little? Or was it just that Evie’s reading so many of them was the Act of God noone could have insured against?
In any event, it’s doubtful one parent has ever felt so sheepish and so proud at the same time. Still, next time I might bring something else to the read-a-thon: fiscal conservatism.

Evie the night after her read-a-thon.


Tiger Father and family are moving house to another compound. Before we left, I thought I'd better take a photo of my favourite sign in our current compound, a list of don'ts for the children's playground.

Only six don'ts. Not so bad really. But pay close attention to No.6. It's an easy mistake to make.

Thankfully, because of this sign, the incidence of children having to play among beef hearts, stomach linings and sheep brains carelessly left lying on swings and slides has decreased noticeably in recent months. Horseplay is still worryingly common, however, as is acting the goat.

Then I started wondering if my new compound's playground would have a sign as good as this. So I went to take a look. Here's what I found:

It was a bit hard to see, so I took a close-up.

So remember, please be considerate and don't go inconveniencing people while they're trying to play by riding bicycles around or kicking footballs. And remember to vacate the area by 8.00pm.

Oh yeah and no shitting.

If only Beijing zoo had thought to erect such a sign. You'll know what I mean if you've read my post Who's Poo at the Zoo?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


It’s occurred to me that if you, Dear Reader, are going to be following me, Dear Writer, that if we are really going to plunge headlong into this relationship, then, err, there are a few things you should know …
So here’s a glossary of terms you need to get by in China. The first installment anyway. There’s a lot of them. Some you’ll need every day. Others are for occasional moments like when you need a small pot to spit the remains of your chicken feet into. Others just sound funny in this exasperating-cum-difficult-cum-impossible language I like to call “Mandarin”.*
(*World’s quickest asterisk explanation record attempt! Told you this blog had everything. I like to call it Mandarin, and so do a few billion others. But “liking to call” is a great trick I’ve learned from my father-in-law in order to sound old and wise. It’s something all fathers should adopt. In my father-in-law’s case, nothing is too outlandish to claim the rights to, such as “Something I like to call a ‘fork in the road’,” or “A branch of faith I like to call ‘Christianity’.” Try it. You’ll impress people.)
Anyway here we go. Most of these words should have little strokes above them indicating which of the four tones of Mandarin you should use. But I, in my mastery of the language, have deemed these tones superfluous. They just complicate things. I’ll write on the language more fully one day to explain. Just pay attention for now.

MANDARIN: I’ll resist drawing the obvious comparisons to that thing in the fruit bowl (although my friend Steve did once ask if I was learning in segments). It is in fact the language that’s so good it’s got several names! We call English “English”. But just to make a complex thing confusing, Mandarin is also called Putonghua, Zhongwen and Hanyu. (OK pointy heads, they refer to very slightly different uses of the language but are basically the same. Sheesh!) “Putong” means common or standard, while “hua” is language. Zhongwen refers to the language of Zhongguo, which is Chinese for ‘China’ and is where we get “Middle Kingdom” (Zhong is middle, guo is state. This comes from the old but still evident belief that China is the centre of the universe). Then there’s Hanyu - the language of China’s dominant ethnic group, the Han Chinese. There are 55 other groups such as the Manchu from the north-east, Uyghur from way out west and the northern Tatars, who provided Genghis Khan’s army with many soldiers and its Steak Tartare – raw beef tenderised by a day in a saddlebag. Then there are others like the Miao – one of several ethnicities without a written language – and a personal favourite, the Ewenki. How good do they sound? Most Chinese refer to their language in English as “Chinese”. But there are many different dialects in China, such as Cantonese, spoken down south. If you thought Mandarin and it’s four tones was hard, try Cantonese. It has nine tones, in China’s Guangdong province at least, but is said to have six, or seven, when spoken in nearby Hong Kong. People don’t seem able to agree. Do you see what we’re up against here people? Still, this one paragraph shows what a fascinating country this is. Well, a fifth of the world lives here, so I guess it should be.

A member of the Miao minority wearing a headpiece
woven from the hair of her ancestors. It's a touching
mark of respect. However, one of them sat in front of me
in the cinema the other day and I wasn't happy.

Members of the Ewenki, yesterday - not the point heads
I was referring to earlier.

More members of the Miao, having once again spent too
much time getting dressed to come up with a system of
writing. If they charge, you are supposed to
run away in a zig-zag fasion.

AYI (eye-ee): After the language, perhaps the second-most important thing here. Most expats and a large percentage of Chinese have an ayi. She’s a housemaid with add-ons. For westerners, who may find China intimidating, she’s particularly important. Why without her, many would never find the time to get their nails done or their feet massaged every second day at China’s ubiquitous primping salons. The word means “Aunty”, which touches on an ayi’s multi-faceted role. She’ll clean house, cook, mind/teach/babysit/raise the children, shop, sniff out a bargain, track down a taxidermist, and argue over a parking space on your behalf. Depending on her experience, she may also put the sheets on your bed while still wet or spray mouthfuls of water onto them to iron them (both true). Finding and holding onto a good one can be tricky, but they’re hard to do without.

NIU BI (neuw bee): A great bit of this old language. It means “the cow’s vagina”, only a little bit rougher. A cow is a niu. A bi is the other bit. It’s actually something that’s very good. You know – that’s the bees knees/the cat’s pyjamas/the cow’s vagina? See how it flows? Best shouted when your team does something good in football. Depending on which tone you use, a bi can also be a pen or a nose. Asking a woman if I can use her pen is the only time tones are important.

One of the best things in China.

MEI YOU (mae yo): Chinese for “no”. Literally translates as “don’t have”. Also suspected to be Chinese for “Umm …” because it’s often the first thing that pops into someone’s head when you ask them for something, particularly government employees who have more pressing matters to attend to, like a nap.

ADDRESSES: A particular favourite of mine. I asked Ayi to post a letter to my daughter’s school around the corner. The first thing she wrote on the envelope was CHINA. “Well … we know it’s in China, don’t we?” I said. “Shhh,” she said. “Just let me do it.” Next thing was BEIJING, then DONGCHENG DISTRICT (our quarter of the city), right on down to Street, Number, name of school, and then right down the bottom, name of addressee. Pretty much the exact opposite of what we’d do. Aren’t people neat?

DIRECTIONS: How would you say the four cardinal points of the compass? North-South-East-West? Here, they go East-South-West-North. The east is very important here. It has a mystical significance. Perhaps the best known revolutionary anthem is/was Dongfang Hong (The East Is Red). Most Chinese satellites and a few of their rockets have been called Dongfang. Coincidentally, in Medieval Europe, maps were hung in a way we’d now call sideways, with the east at the top, which is why we use the word ‘orient’ for ‘the east’ and ‘to spatially align’. We should probably let the Chinese hold sway on this one, for they invented directions after all, having come up with the compass. Which is why I find it odd that if you ever need directions here, you should under no circumstances ask a local. I’m not saying they never know but if they don’t, they’ll tell you they do. For if they admit to not knowing they risk losing …

FACE: The granddaddy of Chinese concepts. To lose it is to lose esteem, be embarrassed or shamed. It is taken seriously. Western bosses have learned, for example, the most ostensibly subtle admonishment in the workplace can take weeks to overcome, or lead to an employee suddenly quitting to look after a sick aunt. I once made a hired driver lose face. He was driving our family and that of my visiting friend Tony around Beijing for a few days, and helping out by buying tickets for shows. I learned he was ripping us off. I called him on it, and got in trouble from someone more culturally sensitive than I for making him lose face. “Well what happens now?” Tony said. “Does he have to kill you? Or himself?” It’s not that serious. Often the face loser might have a good hard look at themselves. More often they’ll end up wondering how someone could be so mean as to make them lose face.

TAI CHI (tie chee)The very popular low-impact form of exercise you’ll see in Chinese parks at dawn and on re-runs of The Karate Kid. Serves the dual purpose of toning muscles and making participants look silly while they’re doing the best praying mantis impression seen outside of a junior drama class. Practitioners also sometimes embrace other exercises like hugging trees and walking backwards for long periods of time. These solely serve the purpose of making them look silly.

Tai chi - some like to do it in a serene setting like this ...

... others prefer a location with more atmosphere.

The discipline involves many different poses with
all sorts of evocative names, such as
"Where's my contact lens" ...

... and "Trick the Old Man".

A man is ejected from a class in Beijing yesterday for
 performing "The Ranting Dissident".

Then there's this guy, seen yesterday in a
manouevre most commonly known as
"Acting The Weirdo".

RIVETTING STUFF HUH? (In fact, it’s what I like to call “The best thing you’ll read all day.”) MORE NEXT THURSDAY!

Sunday, November 27, 2011


I’ve lived in Beijing for six years. I feel I know a fair bit about the local culture. But I’m still dogged by one burning question: When the hell is Chinese bedtime?
In fact I’m not sure there is such a thing. Sometimes I swear these kids, most of whom are only-children thanks to China’s one-child policy, are so indulged they get to decide themselves when they feel like hitting the sack. Perhaps their parents offer a cursory “Not too late now” as they shuffle off to get their rest.
For a foreign stay-at-home parent it’s galling, perplexing, and a bit humiliating.
All afternoon, one of my eyes is kept on my watch as I calculate the countdown to dinner and the evening shambles. The aim is to get food on the table around six, get the kids into the bath by seven, and lights out by 7.30.
That’s the aim anyway.
During the meal that eye keeps returning to the clock. I hate to sound like a Swiss engineer’s accountant son, but if 20 minutes becomes 25 minutes becomes 40 minutes, I’m already worrying about waking my drowsy six and four-year-olds for school next morning.
Finally our girls are sent into dreamland. Then sometimes I’ll go out. And as I go, I’ll usually pass some local kids my daughters’ age playing on our compound’s playground, provided it’s not winter. If I stay in I’ll still know they are there because my kids complain about their noise.
Then sometimes I’ll come home about 10.30pm. I’ll walk past that playground again and THERE ARE STILL CHINESE KIDS PLAYING ON IT!
I feel like barking: “For heaven’s sake do you mind?”
I can hear them laughing in my face: “Ha ha you big dope! Your kids asleep are they? You went to all that trouble again, huh?”
I imagine their parents shaking their heads, not in fear that their kids lack rest, but in bemusement over these foreigners and all their early evening stress.

Chinese bedtime was first turned on its head during
the country's decade of upheaval known as the
Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The banner behind
this group of Red Guards reads: "Denounce your
 parents and their stupid bedtime".
As a result of such campaigns, however, leading human rights
group What Are The Bloody Chinese Up To Now? estimates
 around 95 per cent of the country's children are forced
into "grabbing some shut-eye" wherever they can,
 including this boy in Hefei, Anhui province, yesterday.

I often go to our compound pool to swim in the evening. I’m also often seen there with my girls in the afternoons. I went the other night at 9.30pm and my Chinese friend on the front desk said in bewilderment: “Hey Mr Ma – where are the kids?”
“Where do you think they’d be?” I say. “They’re down the pub watching football!”
“Oh. Fair enough then.”
“No - they’re asleep man! Like they were two hours ago!”
I then got to the pool to be met not by the sight of adults splashing through laps in much appreciated grown-up time, but by a two-year-old boy. There he was in his floatation ring in the water - which was cold if you weren’t actually swimming - with a gaggle of old relatives around him. They cooed and smiled and took photos. He looked back at them, screaming and crying his eyes out. Really, really loudly.
And if my translation of baby Mandarin is any good, he was saying: “THIS IS FREAKING FREEZING! FOR THE LOVE OF THE PARTY WILL YOU NOT PUT ME TO BED?!”
I couldn’t help myself. I wandered over and in my fairly good Chinese said: “Boy baby small. Clock there nine half? He bed you insert and not after. Jesus Christ.”
I got more of those bemused looks that seem to say: “This foreigner seems to not feel this situation is completely normal and sensible. Let’s hope he goes away.”
So I went away. But I did wonder. You know when a toddler is over-tired, when their cry has that persistent tone of “I … WANT … TO … DIE!” That’s bad enough when they’re sitting on the loungeroom floor exhibiting their tired signs, let alone in some frighteningly large reservoir of cold water surrounded by crazed old relatives insisting this is great fun, but who aren’t going anywhere near the water themselves.
My wife the doctor and early childhood specialist gives seminars here in Beijing on how to get babies and toddlers to sleep. They always attract lots of people. None of them are ever Chinese. For why would you worry about getting your children to sleep if you quite clearly are not worried about getting your children to sleep?

At the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games in
Beijing, these children provided colour, pageantry and
thoughtful recognition of China's 55 ethnic minorities.
But they should have been in bed ages ago.

Maybe there are reasons. Maybe because the beds in China are so hard noone can find it in their hearts to order a child into one. Perhaps it’s Beijing’s air pollution, which means the children are still buzzing on carbon dioxide late at night. Maybe it’s because they are told Chinese folk stories, some of which are slightly odd. They often involve some sort of creature, let’s say a crane, which morphs into something else and does something funny – let’s say a rabbit with knives for fingers that slices children to bits in their beds.
Here’s an example I found on a website called Chinese Folk Stories, Myths and Legends. It’s called The Tale of Hok Lee and the Dwarfs. It’s too long to reproduce fully, but here’s the bit where the story takes a chilling twist as Hok Lee is addressed by his arch rival, the Doctor.
"’And listen you dance your rattling unsurpassed,’ another the Doctor. ‘If you recreation shaft and satisfy them, they give appropriate you to verbalise a asking and you can then beg to be recovered; but if you saltation badly they will most liable do you whatsoever roguery out of spite.’ With that he took his depart and departed.”
Perhaps a little was lost in the translation, but you get the gist right?
Neither do I, but it’s not looking good for old Hok Lee. At the very least the kids will go to bed with a headache.

Uh-oh. China could be in a bit of trouble in a few years.
This item found on

No, I know the logic behind why Chinese children stay up later than foreign models. Many have two working parents and are cared for by grandparents, so evenings are the main chance mum and dad have to see their offspring. I would say mornings too, but I imagine when most parents go to work, the kids are still sleeping off their big night.
Also, most Chinese schools still enforce naptime up until what we loawais (foreigners) would consider an inordinately late age. Obviously a few hours’ sleep in the afternoons is great for rest and recharging. But it’s not all about the teachers - the kids get to rest too.
Still, the whole thing just seems to confront the natural order. Kids are supposed to go to bed and maybe sneak out for a glass of water late on. Adults stay up late. I, for one, don’t want to have to argue with my four-year-old over whether we watch Pulp Fiction, the Blair Witch Project, or Tellytubbies.
In China there are rules for everything. Every time you go to a park, for example, you have to observe a big sign illustrating "The 83 Don'ts". So why hasn’t the Chinese Government instituted an official Chinese bedtime? We don’t have to be draconian about it. Maybe 8.30pm?

Some of the Don'ts seen here relaxing at a
Beijing park. They seem to outlaw everything
except drilling your own head.

Granted, one problem would be that China doesn’t have timezones, despite having the width for four of them. The whole country is on Beijing time. So perhaps children way out west in Xinjiang, just north of Pakistan, would grumble about being packed off to bed in the middle of the afternoon.
Still, this way I could swim laps without colliding with an inflatable lobster. And when I stumble home from a late night, I wouldn’t be hounded by hordes of jeering seven-year-olds on the swings.

One Beijing reveller exploiting a loophole in
regulations, yesterday.