Tuesday, April 24, 2012


The Chinese people are a very clever bunch who've come up with a lot of things. Rubbish at football and cricket, but very good at inventing inventions.

When we argue, my ethnic Chinese wife and I will usually conduct a reasoned, adult debate. We don’t like to waste energy on arguing, so when we do, you can bet it’s a weighty, important issue, usually: “Who is better – the Chinese, or my own downtrodden yet dogged species - white people?”

Famously, the Chinese invented paper, scissors, rock. In the 1400s, when the British were eating mud and tree bark off plates made of their own faeces, in Beijing they were having banquets with porcelain, silverware and roasted swan. That's true, I'll concede, before countering that the Chinese have been pretty quiet for a few centuries now and that, as we say in Australian football, titles aren't won in April.

Still, you can say what you like about the Chinese (well, you can if they're not the kind of Chinese who like to be known as “the government”). And I hate peddling racial stereotypes. All white people hate that.

But one thing that can't be denied is this: My God the Chinese can hear.

This isn’t a euphemism. It’s not metaphor or Biblical parable. I just mean their ears seem to work particularly well. On the scale of picking things up audibly, I've become convinced it goes: 1. Great big huge radio telescope; 2. Dog; 3. Chinese person.

Has anyone else noticed this? It might just be me. It might be another sure sign I've got too much time on my hands. But after six years in China I'm sure I’ve hit on what I would call a reasonably scientific finding. My wife the doctor wouldn’t call it that, for our idea of science differs. Still, I’m determined to take my conclusions from a sample survey of “quite a few” and get them published in a scientific periodical somewhere, like the New England Journal of Medicine, or Ripley’s Believe it or Not.

So many times I've been blown away by Chinese ears at work. Strolling on footpaths, I've seen people walking about 30 meters apart. The one next to me tries to catch the attention of the one ahead. Translated into English it wouldn't so much be "OI DAVE!!" but more like 'I say, Dave old thing ... "

I’ll think: “Who’s he talking to?” Then, up ahead I'll see Chinese Dave turn and say, equally quietly, “Mmm?”

I've been in department stores where my attendant needs to ask a distant co-worker something. "Xiao Wang how much is this calligraphy brush?" they'll say, in a voice fit for a bedtime story. Mouth agape, I'll look from one person to the other and calculate the distance.

"Come on - big loud voice now,” I’ll say. “There's no way in the world he’ll hear tha..." And then I’m cut off.

"Ten ninety nine!" comes the reply, again in a voice I can barely hear. It’s as if Xiao Wang has been resting his head on my attendant’s shoulder, and not on his own display counter. Seriously, these guys make Lindsay Wagner look like Beethoven.

Chinese people love to hear things easily.
Among their many inventions was the
world's first hearing aid, modeled here
by an ancient emperor.

Similarly, modern emperor Mao Zedong unveiled his own
"hearing enhancer" at the launch of the Great Leap
Forward as a reminder of Chinese ingenuity.

The Chinese propaganda machine soon swung
into action, with posters like these encouraging
people to look after their ears in the workplace.
The caption reads: "Stick two fingers up to
bad hearing!"

Revolutionary hero Lei Feng models
his own contribution to the cause -
The Bat Hat.

In looking for reasons there are a few hypotheses to consider.

Are the Chinese compensating for other senses which may be less sharp? Discuss.

Consider how a blind person develops great touch, or how someone who likes Michael Bolton could still be a good dresser. The Chinese are very good at hearing, not very good at seeing. It’s true the majority wear glasses, although the bucktooth thing is for cartoons only. Still, it’s not like they’re blind blind.

When you’re having a discussion with a Chinese person, they’ll usually take a firm position. Most often, this position is about five centimetres away from your ear. Which makes me wonder: Is spatial awareness also a deficient sense to be compensated for with strong hearing?

Sometimes you could wonder whether this relates to the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls spatial awareness. There was once a test conducted on London cab drivers which found that because of their map-like knowledge of the city’s map-like road system, on average their hippocampus had grown to take up a larger-than-usual part of the brain, leaving scant room for the parts controlling matters like cheerfulness, racial tolerance, or knowing when to shut up. But they could get around.

Does poor spatial awareness (see other chapters on The Hippocampus; Cognitive Function and Reverse Parking), merely relate to brain parts? Or is it nurture? Discuss.

With 1.3 billion Chinese in the country, their idea of personal space may differ to the average Australian. I’m proud to say my country holds the silver medal in population density, with three people per square kilometre! We were only beaten by the lonely Mongolians with 1.7, but have vowed to go one better next time.

Or is the Chinese ear different to the Caucasian ear? You’ll find, if you look, more fast-twitch fibres in black people than white people, which helps explain why the former generally run faster. Chinese people were given one less fold of skin on the eyelid than white people. Were they compensated by getting an extra fold in the ear which we don’t yet know about? Investigate, and then discuss.

A Chinese ear, yesterday, attached to the head of our maid
Cui Ayi.

And the author's own white ear. See? Told you they were

Ninety-two and still got his own ears!

Perhaps it’s evolutionary. When the British got here, they found the locals all spoke in a barely discernible voice, which they called “Chinese whispers”. Maybe, over the millennia, the Chinese ear grew stronger to pick this up.

Or is it just care and attention?

When I started my first China stint in 1995, I met the man who was to become my faithful interpreter, Ai Ping. I grew to know him as Love Bottle. “Ai” means “love”, and “ping” means “bottle”. After a while he very politely told me his name didn’t mean Love Bottle if you pronounced the tones correctly. I can’t remember what it was, but it didn’t sound half as good. Still, we continued our relationship nonetheless.

In any event the day we met I was thrilled to see he had a long pinky fingernail. I was a guitar player back then. Many guitarists grow a long nail for plucking. Excitedly, I thought my first Chinese acquaintance and I might bridge cultural divides by "getting down" through the international language of music.

I then noticed lots of people had similar nails. Had I landed in a nation of guitar players? Contrary to expectations, did this ancient place rock? And if so, did it rock particularly hard?

A few days later I raised the subject.
"Ai Ping - You play the guitar!?" I beamed.
"Your finger nail there ..."
"Oh, this?" he said, holding the digit up beside his head. "This is for cleaning my ear." He put his left nail in and he shook it all about.

I have a high regard for clean ears. Mrs Doctor always chides me for sticking cotton buds into mine, even though my dad uses car keys. But still Ai Ping had left me deflated. He showed me he had a long pinkynail on the other hand as well. I noticed that so did everyone else. This scotched the guitar theory, but it did suggest clean ears. So maybe that’s it?

Another Chinese ear, this time with needles
sticking into it. This is an ancient form of
Chinese medicine known as "sticking
needles in the ear".

It leaves the victim open to
scorn and ridicule from people
like myself for having to wear
little band-aids in their ears.

 Here is another form of ear obsession called
"ear candling". Either that or she should have
stopped after the last joint.

This Beijing man demonstrates another method of
ear upkeep which is widely practiced in China.
And my wife worries about cotton buds? 

Even their pigs have good ears. A lot of Chinese believe
that if you are ailing in a certain body part, you should
eat an animal version of that body part.

In Australia, "pigs' ears" is rhyming slang for "beers". But
in China, it's not.

And if you have problem feet ...

A group of Chinese politicians seen relying on
their ears during a rousing speech at the National
People's Congress.

The thing that stuck with me most from Wild Swans, Jung Chang’s chronicling of a life of upheaval and famine under Mao Zedong, was her assertion that Chinese people just love having their ears tickled, as if they were a nation of cats. If we are to believe her, and I don’t after testing this on the street this morning, then maybe the answer lies in physical massaging from an early age? Investigate, discuss and then go to your room.

On the phone it's different. There's lots of shouting going on. In the often quirky Chinese language, the phone is called the dian hua, or the "electric talk", but if you sit beside enough phone talkers, you'd think it should be the dian tingde shengzi, or “electric can and string”.

But face-to-face, pound-for-pound, if I ever want to lend some ears I’ll make sure they’re Chinese ones. For it’s a little known fact that ears are a strength of this Communist country. According to one old saying, even the walls have them!


  1. I remember reading about that Taxi Driver Hippocampus study! I looked it up, and actually found TWO.
    and it was only the posterior part of the hippocampus that was larger...the more time spent driving, the larger it was. The brain structure really is changed by daily usage and function, we are able to grow and change our brains amazingly- even in adulthood!

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17024677 was a follow up study wondering if the changes were due to stress, motion or the act of driving itself (not the spatial exercise of mental mapping of routes- they compared bus drivers to taxi drivers to discern this) and once again they found that it was the use of the brain itself, to visualize and plan a route, that accounted for the large back end of the hippocampus.

    This study http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2670971/ looked at the taxi drivers again. Their posterior hippocampus was larger, but the anterior hippocampus SMALLER than the comparison groups, which they say caused deficits in their " forming and retaining new associations involving visual information".

    I am somewhat fascinated by the Hippocampus. It is one area damaged easily by toxins and accidents, and amnesia short term is quite common. My daughter has Down Syndrome and dysfunction in the hippocampus is common. So good function is a pretty good marker of overall cognitive health. Even though she is three, I have since she was an infant marvelled at her ability to learn new rhymes, remember a new song not sung since several weeks ago, learn new words, and also constantly challenge and assess her memory. Though she is somewhat speech delayed, her memory is great and always has been. We began Targeted Nutritional Intervention with her at age 7 months (just 4 supplements at that time). Over the next few months, one by one, we began giving more supplements shown to have certain effects in vivo, in vitro or in mouse models of Down syndrome. Each component, in some way, reduces or compensates for the toxic effects of the extra 21st chromosome (housing the infamous and awful SOD-1 gene which leads to oxidation of cell membranes, leading to premature cell death, DYRK gene and others). So the basic idea is to reduce the peroxide in the cell membranes, increase cell permeability, increase certain fats (DHA, EPA, Choline) and boost the neurotransmitters that are low like Norepinephrine and sometimes Serotonin. Also give substances to boost neuron growth (which usually looks in DS like a tree in winter). Also want to decrease the neurotransmittors that are too high (like GABA- Ginkgo Biloba lowers GABA)

    Anyway, I don't know what got into me. I love the hippocampus. It's the seat of learning, responsible for spatial relations, and memory encoding and filing into long term memory...it's the most undervalued part of the human brain, IMO, almost never discussed in popular literature, and I was most happy to see it in print here!

    1. Thanks Liora. Very informative. I myself am a hippocampus freak. It's the only part of the human body I know, other than maybe the leg. It first came to my attention in a fabulous play I saw in London called Mnemonic, by Theatre de Complicite. See if you can find it online.

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