Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A Teacher for Life

During the recent trip to Chengdu for Chinese New Year, as usual I met up with my high school friends for a drinking feast. We invited Teacher Chen, the head teacher of our class, to join us as well.

When we started our high school in 1986, Teacher Chen was given the chance for the first time to head a high school class. In today’s standard, Teacher Chen might have been considered a 愤青 (angry youth) then. She was idealistic, passionate, and silently angry at the establishment for giving the young teachers few opportunities to prove their capabilities.

1986 was an awkward yet exciting year for all of us. In Chengdu, jeans were still frowned upon and forbidden in school. Pop songs were being smuggled in from Hong Kong. Ballroom dance was just slowly sneaking back onto university campuses. Jing Yong’s martial arts fantasies, grouped together with other hand-copied fictions as corrupting and addictive, were completely off limit to the “good students”.

The school, eager to send more students to famous universities and improve its reputation, repeated the same old message of studying hard. But time was changing. At the New Year’s Eve party for 1987, a few of us danced disco, a dance considered belonging only to “hooligans”, on the creaky wooden floor in our classroom, under our classmates’ curious stares. No one was penalized afterwards.

Teacher Chen shielded us from much of the school’s criticism. Her mantra was “You have only one life. Live differently!”, which was such an invigorating message to us who had been trained all our lives to study and only study. Once, unsatisfied with our formulaic writing, she tasked us to write whatever we would want, on our lives, on our future, on our frustrations. For any one who wrote about their true thoughts and feelings, she gave a perfect score.

Another time, she let us decide on an unorthodox and highly tacky class slogan – To Live, Not Simply Living (生活,而不是活着). That slogan hanged over the blackboard for an entire semester. It was with her encouragement that we put on plays, staged a break dance performance for the school variety show, and sing pop (oh my) songs at the school singing competition.

We became good friends, highly inappropriate for teacher and students. A few of us close to her would sometimes study in her office, and report to her the latest impressionist poems or Freudian theories we had just picked on. One time we found her old love letters to the ex before her husband. When we confronted her, she blushed all over and told us we had gone too far.

Now looking back, I feel she needed us then as much as we needed her. We were all pushing along to see how far we could go. Alas, how blessed we were.

After high school, she and I continued correspondence, even after I went to America. Sometimes she would express envy at me living “freely”; sometimes she would tell me her frustration at not being able to do more, not able to win against the establishment. But in 1996 when I came out to her in a letter, she stopped writing.

It was only then I knew there’s a limit to everything that seemed too good to be true.

While waiting for her at the restaurant, my friends and I reminisced about the good old rebellious days in high school. When she finally arrived, it caused quite a stir. She had barely changed. After the warm greetings, she sat next to me, once her best student, at the dinner table.

We talked about our respective lives. She was now a special-grade teacher and had garnered many teaching awards. I asked about her students. The time is changing, she said; there were things off limit to them now but they were all doing great. I asked about her daughter who had just started a job in Singapore after graduation. The daughter missed home and wanted to move back, but Teacher Chen didn’t want her to get stuck in Chengdu, the slow-paced city which she had always considered only for those lacking ambition.

She asked what I was doing. I replied filmmaking and writing. She sighed, “If you keep on switching, how can you get far?” Then we moved on to talk about her other successful students who had gotten doctor’s degrees or were making lots of money.

I wanted to ask her then if she still taught her students To Live, Not Just Living. I wanted to tell her then that I’d always been true to our friendship, to her teaching that we should be living honestly and passionately. But my friends were falling off the chair from too much drinking, and Teacher Chen, with the pensive smile on her face, looked more and more distant.

Monday, February 20, 2006

All Quiet on the Chinese Front

I've started working for Global Voices Online (GVO) as their East Asia editor.  Here's a piece I wrote for the site today on the reaction from the Chinese-language blogosphere on the issue of media censorship in China

GVO seeks to amplify, curate and aggregate the global conversation online - with a focus on blogs outside the U.S. and Western Europe.  It's a cool and worthy service.  Check it out.

All About My Mother

About ten days ago I had a big argument with my mother. Huge argument. Tears and swearing got in the way. The issue was some family stuff, as always. The unreasonable requests from her were so obviously morally wrong and I shouldn’t even have to explain my stand. Instead, I kept on calling her back, apologizing for my behavior and comforting her.

What could I have done? She’s my mother.

Which made me think about the current debate on censorship in China. The comments from Chinese readers to my previous post Do I Have to Take A Stand? mainly expressed annoyance and incomprehension at the West’s criticism of China. So did most of the Chinese bloggers I’ve read thus far (here’s one opinion translated by ESWN). I sensed the existence of a defensive argument from my compatriots – This is our family business; leave us alone!

That’s the same argument I used with my ex who’s an American advocating Tibetan rights and preaching all the other liberal media’s criticisms of China. I explained that I could understand his points, but please understand that Chinese are very defensive about these criticisms because in our modern history we’d been repeatedly humiliated by Western colonial powers; in addition, we Chinese believe in “A son doesn’t complain about his mother’s plain looks, and a mother doesn’t pick on a son’s destitution” (子不嫌母丑,母不嫌子贫).

Last Friday I filmed an interview with a guy in his forties who was a key organizer at the family church I’m following. He was imprisoned for 2 years after the 1989 student movement. After his release, the government kept on harassing him until he couldn’t live in Beijing anymore. He moved to Hainan and did interior decoration to make a living, leading a group of migrant labors from the countryside. He came back to Beijing in 1998 and slowly found comfort in Christianity. He would worship with some of his friends from the 1989 era who had been suffering both financially and spiritually since 1989. Every so often the cops would come and disburse the congregation for fear of some political gathering.

Still, he loved China. He sang the song My Chinese Heart in front of my camera. And tears came down his face.

I can’t speak for the young kids nowadays. But for my generation and those before us, we grew up indoctrinated with the notion that China is our dear motherland, and it’s our duty to repay her love and make her, having long suffered, proud. We learned in class stories such as the Chinese students in Japan in the 1910s committing suicide to protest the humiliation they suffered as Chinese overseas. We also learned at the founding of the People’s Republic of China, many of the overseas Chinese returned to help make the motherland strong.

Of course many of them were persecuted under Mao and wasted their lives away, if having not gone crazy or been tortured to death.

My ex sometimes would counter – we Westerners are only criticizing the government; why do you always jump to associate the government with the country?

It was difficult to find a retort to that. Does the government represents “China”? What’s this mysterious “China” that we were trained to love and to sacrifice for?

I’m not a historian or anything. But I think that the Confucian culture had intentionally blurred the line between family structure and dynastic hierarchy; emperors thus became sort of the family head, demanding loyalty in the same way as the family patriarch.

And Confucius’ followers and the communists further exploited our human weakness – they put in the strict patriarchal rules (the government), yet they demanded the same devotion as our unconditional love to our mothers (the motherland).

However, is the government really a surrogate of our great dear ephemeral Motherland whom we should forgive for any wrongdoing and defend from any badmouthing? Should this devotion be as unconditional as that to our own mothers?

I’d been playing with the parallel for a week. Then over the weekend I read an article on ESWN, about the government’s refusal to allow Liu Binyan, a famous writer and political dissident from the 1989 era to return to China for medical treatment. After Liu passed away, the government orchestrated to erase his existence from people’s memory.

Disgusted, I felt compelled to take a stand – This government is not our mother. My mother, despite her great difficulty dealing with me being whom I am, still loves me and always worries about me. I came from her and I once ran away from her smothering love. But that love is real and now I’m back, I can accept the suffocating Confucian teachings just for her.

Not with this government. Not with a government that demands loyalty with no love in return.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Do I Have To Take a Stand?

Recently I found that because I’m Chinese, living in China and speaking decent English, I’ve been increasingly invited by foreign media to comment on China, especially on the red-hot Internet censorship issue since I’m also blogging. (Oh, being a “filmmaker” helps.) A Scottish paper profiled me for their Chinese New Year’s special. Business Week asked for my view on using proxy servers to get around the Great Firewall. BBC News interviewed me on Google’s censored Chinese search engine.

The reporters all requested the interviews at the last minutes for their encroaching deadlines. I always wondered – how the hell do I represent the “Chinese” view on anything in China? But hey, every one enjoys his/her 15 minutes of talk time.

Two nights ago, I joined three other “Chinese residents” for a forum discussion on BBC World Service, once again on censorship in China. It was 2am in the morning and I was thinking my 15 minutes were going too far. Of the four participants, one was an expat lawyer in Shanghai who sounded Southeast Asian, the second a British expat living in Shanghai, the third an activist artist/writer from Hong Kong, and me, the token Beijinger. I remember wondering – which of us represents the perspective of the “Chinese”?

Today purely by chance, I bumped into the blog of Yan, the Hong Kong activist artist/writer who was the only one at the forum criticizing the Chinese government throughout. Here’s what she said about me (you can also find a link on her blog to listen to the program):
Tian (my pseudonym) a film-maker who is Chinese and lives in China was very interesting. He had a very strong grasp on the political situation in China and seemed to be really intelligent and thoughtful but when pushed reverted to the usual, "People in China are not ready for free speech," because like everyone in China has been brought up to believe it will cause civil war and chaos instead of a lesser Police State. The thought passed me by to ask Tian if he ever thought it's possible he had bought into Chinese Government Propaganda and just repeating it, but not only would that have been rude but he also may not actually want the authorities on his back afterward. My friend who was listening asked me if he was being paid by the government, but I really don't think so. I think he was passionate in his own way.
Ok, I never said “People in China are not ready for free speech”. I said that for me and a small percentage of the population, free speech is important because that directly impacts what we do (Politics aside, can you imagine the film censors wouldn’t allow any ghost-movie because it’s considered superstitious?); but based on my observation, most Chinese don’t care about freedom of speech that much, with wealth-making being the current king.

I know that wasn’t much of a stand which modern media seem to demand on hot-button issues. But the longer I live in China, the more difficult I find it to take a stand, especially on issues related to China. So let me put my MBA hat back on and play with the complexity of the censorship issue with bullet points:
1. Progress or Backwards? the extent of censorship vs information availability
a. Internet is growing rapidly in China. Chinese are having access to exploding amount of information which they couldn’t have fathomed a decade ago.
b. The information is censored, especially in politics, history and news. Chinese are being goaded by the government to think in certain directions.
c. But smart people can get around the Great Firewall via proxy servers. And if one reads English, there’s no much censorship to speak of unless one considers:
  • that BBC (blocked) offers much superior and often exclusive content compared to CNN and NY Times, or
  • that speeches on Falun Gong, pro-Taiwan-independence and anti-Communist-party (I mean politically anti) are unalienable rights for the average Chinese.
2. Why are the laowais so ga-ga?
a. Why are the foreign media working up so high a frenzy over this? Don’t they know they can’t impose their will on China, if Chinese don’t want to change themselves?
b. Of course the foreigners care, because that’s in the core of their value system. Without them being ga-ga over this, the situation in China would be worse.
c. Worse. Hmm. Really? That’s very conceited. Do they want to repeat Iraq in China?
d. And who says free speech is essential to an acceptable society? Look at Singapore. Look at all the democracies that can’t feed their own people. Press freedom is not the most urgent issue in China.
e. What’s the urgent issue in China then? Without press and political freedom, none of China’s current major problems can be solved satisfactorily.

3. Do Chinese care?
a. The average Chinese I know doesn’t. Of course we can always argue about my sample size, and the predisposition in my observation.
b. But if given the chance (free speech in education and public discourse), would Chinese cherish the freedom then?
c. And why do we care about the “average” Chinese? Every individual deserves the full human rights declared in the UN charter.
d. That’s just a pipe dream! People want to make their lives better first.
e. How long will this “first” last? Any longer we Chinese would truly live like panda bears, growing fat and not thinking. We have to start changing.

4. How to change?
a. Ok, to change, but how? You expect the people who have power will suddenly see the light?
b. If only the communists will lose their power! But wait, what are the alternatives? Go to New York and listen to the squabbling of the dissident groups. Or interview the university students in Beijing and ask for their definition of democracy and see how many of them support voting rights for the peasants. It’s not entirely a political issue. It’s a cultural issue as well.
c. So what are you saying? Paralyzed by the difficulties?
d. No no no. Change has to happen. But the Chinese have to figure it out themselves. The foreign media can continue to go ga-ga over this. Will all the media attention serve much purpose beyond acting as the fad of the day though? I wonder.

Whew! Now these bullet points are off my chest, what a relief! Now you see why I wouldn’t want to take a stand – it’s simply too exhausting to weigh the bullet points all at once.

What if I have to take a stand then? What if as in my business-school strategy class, there’s a professor who demands a stand from me, telling me “after you’ve done Porter’s five-force analysis for the company’s proposed entry into a brand new market, after you’ve compared the costs and benefits, you have 60 seconds to make a recommendation to the CEO, what would it be?”

Indeed, what would it be?

I would forget about the bullet points, forget about analysis, forget about my desire to go with the “average” Chinese (because I don’t know the “average” Chinese and my decision has zero influence over the “average” Chinese’s), and stake my stand based only on me, on what I, as an individual, would want in a democratic society, because that’s the only decision making process capable of making any honest sense to me – I don’t want to live in a society that doesn’t allow me to express myself freely!

But wait, would that land me in prison?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Overheard (I)

10:30am. I was riding in a taxi to the aptly-named Fortune Plaza for a meeting. No traffic jam on the narrow Guang Hua Road which is usually jammed like a parking lot during rush hours.

I gratefully noted my observation to the driver. The driver concurred that we should be thankful whenever traffic in downtown Beijing is bearable. Then he pointed to the right hand side of the road where CCTV (China Central Television) is building its huge ultra-modern tower, “Why the hell are they cramming into the CBD (Central Business District) as well? It’d make traffic much worse.”

Can’t the city just broaden Guang Hua Road, like what they’ve been doing elsewhere in Beijing? I asked. As much as I hate the city becoming more and more like LA, I hate getting stuck in traffic more.

“You kidding?” The driver mocked in a humored way. “Here in CBD, every inch of land is worth an inch of gold. None of these private enterprises would be willing to let go of any land to road construction.”

Why is CCTV moving from its current obscure location to CBD, one of the most expensive business districts in Beijing then?

“Greed. What else?” The driver shrugged. “It’s all about finding schemes to convert state-owned property into private wealth. With this huge tower, they can rent space out to other companies. Who knows who get to pocket the money?”

“Last week I went to the Diaoyutai State Guest House and picked up a retired ex-minister.” He continued as the newly built Fortune Plaza came into view. “He was on an evening out for private businesses, so he didn’t take his own chauffeur. In my cab, he was on the phone constantly talking about land deals.”

Aren’t there too many retired ex-ministers in Beijing for them to have much power anymore? I asked.

“Not at all. On the contrary they are all out to grab whatever they can. I remember the ex-minister in my cab yelling to his phone, ‘you’ll die if you lose this land deal for me’. Humph, it’s worse than the Kuomintang (the Nationalist party that ruled China before the communists).”

Humph. I shared my brief moment of indignation with him as the cab pulled to a stop. What is there for one to do anyway beyond venting now and then with cab drivers?

The Problem With Piracy

Last month I wrote a piece for a popular American radio show defending piracy in China. Here's the (relatively) short piece:
Last summer I went to a workshop on digital video production. A professor from the Beijing Film Academy reminded us one day to rush out and buy pirated DVDs of all Hollywood classics. The government would start cracking down on piracy sooner or later, she said, and it would become harder to learn about film making.

In China, I hear all kinds of pro-piracy arguments. Some argue that in a country where the average annual income is around $1000, legal Hollywood DVDs are simply too expensive. Or there’s the “quality-of-life” argument: that without piracy, entertainment options would be reduced to bland Chinese television, anemic domestic movie productions and the 20 blockbuster movies imported from overseas every year.

I’m a documentary film maker, so my argument is different: truth is, I need pirated DVDs to keep up with the latest in the industry. China has no Blockbuster, NetFlix or a meaningful public library system. As a result, without piracy, I’d never see the likes of Inside Deep Throat, Supersize Me, or The Grizzly Man. Ditto for young Chinese musicians who are getting exposure to the international music scene from pirated CDs.
In a country where media is still tightly controlled by the government, piracy seems the only way for un-fettered information access other than the Internet.

Still, I’m willing to pay a LITTLE extra for the legit stuff. Or at least I was. Last year, when Warner Brothers lowered the price of some DVDs in China to RMB 23, a little less than 3 dollars, I bought a copy of Batman Begins. But there were no DVD extras or even language selection. And Chinese censors had cut short a scene in which a woman’s dress fell off her shoulder.

I didn’t care about the bare shoulder of the beautiful actress, but I’ve decided to stick with piracy for a while. If we only had access to legal media products that have passed the censors, we would only get the likes of Titanic, Backstreet Boys and Batman with no shoulder exposed, products as mind numbing as the communist propaganda.

So maybe, Hollywood should stop being so afraid of piracy in China. Maybe corporate benefits could take a back seat for a while, in the name of the grand ideal of promoting democracy and open societies all over the world. When China has become truly open and the economy has improved for all of its population, not just the lucky few, then Hollywood can easily come in and reap billions more in rewards.
My point seems to have been further validated by what happened to two films in the past month: The Chinese government retracted the approval for Memoirs of A Geisha, citing the possibility of its release fanning anti-Japanese sentiment; it also refused to allow importing Brokeback Mountain due to the movie’s “inappropriate” content, in sharp contrast to our “compatriots” across the strait in Taiwan who are going to the theaters in droves to support director Ang Lee, their native son.

Luckily piracy comes to the rescue. All over China DVDs of both movies can be found from every street corner vendor and every neighborhood DVD shop. No anti-Japanese protest or sexual delinquency has resulted from their wide availability.
But piracy does have its problem – the subtitles for new releases (usually pirated from festival screeners thus have no official subtitles) are often misleading, if not outright mistaken. Sometimes I wonder if a Chinese high school kid is being caged somewhere in a pirated DVD factory and just types whatever English words s/he recognizes from the movie dialogues.

For Brokeback Mountain, there are many confused fans. One sought help after reading a review of Brokeback Mountain online:
[translated] Every one please advise – what has the death of Ennis’ father to do with his relationship with Jack? … Is Ennis’ father gay?
Apparently the fan watched a DVD with a subtitle telling Ennis’ father as one of the gay killing victims in the film, which is completely false.

Another reviewer wrote:
[translated] Jack opens his wardrobe (at the end of the movie) and sees a photo of the Brokeback Mountain and two blood-stained shirts. He murmured in tears: “How could you leave me?” The delicate directing of Ang Lee renders one unable to hold back tears.
Hmm. “How could you leave me?” is too Asian-soap-opera-ish to be anywhere near delicate. When a reader pointed out that the last line of the movie was “Jack, I swear…”, another reader responded defensively:
[translated] “I wear…” includes many possible meanings. As to whether subtitles need to be accurate, the standards for a typical audience and a movie critic are probably different…
It is amazing how the audience can be moved to tears simply by the sound and image; story and dialogue be damned.

Ang Lee should be really proud.

Monday, February 13, 2006

From Turkey to Riceballs

When I first arrived in the US in 1992, the food I had the most difficulty getting used to were cheese and turkey. I overcame the aversion to cheese after some persistent trips to the neighborhood McDonald’s. Back in China, I had never had the luxury of visiting the McD; the few outlets pioneering in China then were grouped in with Michael Jackson and Coca Cola as symbols of America, the top of the Chinese hierarchy of Western civilizations.

I got used to cheese from the cheese burgers which seemed always on sale for a dollar each, a huge bargain for a piece of the American dream. I would go at least every other day, until I got so sick of it and switched to Burger King. Alas, those were the innocent days before Supersize Me came to the big screen.

The turkey, however, took a lot longer to sink in. The first Thanksgiving I had in the US, the hosts, who were fellow Chinese graduate students in the medical school, made sure we had roasted chicken from the local Chinese restaurant besides the huge turkey. Over the meal, we groaned over turkey and reminisced about the tender chicken and duck back home. What were the Americans thinking to stuff in their mouth such dry meat as turkey?

But my Chinese friends and I kept on having Thanksgiving dinners. Except for one year when we gave up and only had Chinese chicken, we ordered turkey every year at the local supermarkets like the happy Americans we saw in TV commercials. In the late 90s, I started having Thanksgiving dinners with my American friends. They helped me discover all sorts of fancy cranberry sauces, which made turkey bearable.

So last night, invited to a dinner at an expat-friend’s penthouse apartment, I decided to bring rice balls. It was the night before the Lantern Festival, the end of the lunar new year celebration and the day to eat rice balls. I wanted to introduce the tradition to the expats at the party.

I cooked the rice balls in boiling water (no I didn’t make them despite my prior proclamation of missing the old days making rice balls with my dad; I bought them plastic wrapped) and put three (the number symbolizing plenty) in each bowl.

All the expats who had studied many years in China and knew how to speak Chinese finished the rice balls. Among the three who didn’t speak Chinese, only one took a small bite.

On our way home, my boyfriend asked me why I was quiet. I told him that I was thinking – why had I looked down on my Chinese friends who didn’t bother to try to like cheese and turkey in America as culturally unadventurous? Why did I laugh at my mother because she insisted on us bringing camping stove so she could have instant noodle with Sichuan hot sauce in Las Vegas? (Ok, she was a little extreme for she disliked any restaurant that was not genuinely Sichuanese.) Our expat friends had just ignored our Chinese tradition in China without even a bat of their eyelids.

My Chinese friends and I had tried hard to learn the American way in America. In a village follow the local customs (入乡随俗). The anti-immigrant population in the US and Europe seemed to be demanding the same. But many of the expats I know in Beijing, especially the new batch coming here for the “opportunities”, are not doing that. They dined in Italian or Persian restaurant, danced in dive bars with only pretty Chinese girls in sight, and read books written by fellow expats about their kindred insight on China.

Instead of brushing aside my reminiscence as bourgeois nonsense, my boyfriend nodded his head, like a good Taiwanese. “Indeed,” he said, “those expats come here and want to make a buck. But they don’t know or even care for local customs. I doubt if they’d go far.”

The cab drove by an upscale apartment complex in front of which fireworks were exploding. Indeed, I nodded my head in reply – capitalism speaks much louder than cultural nuisances. If the US wasn’t the land of Bill-Gates-style billionaire dreams, you think many of my Chinese friends would pretend to enjoy cheese and turkey?

Likewise, without a taste for rice balls, even if affected, how could one capture a slice of the saliva-inducing economic miracle of China?

Thursday, February 09, 2006

A Different Kind of Spam

Last night around 7pm the land-line phone rang in my Beijing apartment, as I was getting ready for a dinner party. The caller ID indicated a number from overseas. I picked up the phone and found a pre-recorded Chinese program coming through the line. I was about to hang up on the spam call before I heard the name “Gao Zhisheng” mentioned in the program.

Gao was the dissident human rights lawyer I had interviewed before. So I listened to the whole 5-minute program over the phone. It was a broadcast from Radio Hope. The first part was about the government’s persecution of Falun Gong believers, and quoted extensively an interview with Gao who had represented some persecuted believers in court. The second part of the program told how a banned article in China, Examine CCP Nine Times, was causing massive numbers of communist party members to drop their party memberships. At the end of the program, I was prompted to press different buttons on my phone to withdraw my membership in the party or the Communist Youth League.

Regardless of how one feels about Falun Gong, we have to give them credits for their use of modern technology to penetrate China’s huge censorship barrier and spam their messages over phone lines. Yet somehow I felt apprehensive at the call, imagining all the photons and electrons moving over cross-Pacific cables and finagling their way into our apartment, as if I was besieged by an impending sense of gloom.

Oh well, I must have spent too much time reading Mao: The Untold Stories.

Cultural Misunderstanding

I was waiting for the bus with my dad a few days ago on a cold Chengdu evening when Terry called from Beijing. After exchanging some greetings, she said I have a cultural question for you. I cringed in silence – please not another question about how to exchange business cards in China.

Terry is a friend of a friend from the US. She had just finished her MBA degree and decided to brave the new Wild Wild East – China. Starry-eyed but knowing little about the Chinese language and culture, she’s having some great difficulty adjusting to life in Beijing. So I fully expected a quick Chinese Culture 101 with her over the phone.

“The situation is like this,” she started in her cheerful yet restrained New York accent. “I’ve been in touch with this Chinese guy who owns a trading firm. He was introduced to me by an old colleague of mine. I was hoping to someday get a job from him, which would be ideal.”

Ok, I said. The pay probably would suck big time though, I contemplated to myself.

“So we’ve been hanging out. He invited me to dinner a couple of times. I didn’t worry at all because he’s married with two kids. Last night he invited me to go to a massage parlor with him, which I thought a little weird. But he said that in China people talked about business all the time at massage places. Is that true?”

That’s true, I told her. All my male business friends do that. Is this the cultural question she’s asking?

“No no,” she replied. “There’s more. The massage place was actually cool. Upscale. There’s buffet dinner. People walked around in their bathrobes. There were even mah-jong and cigar rooms. He got a nice room with two beds for us. We both got massages.”

All sounded fine then.

“Here’s the problem,” she said. “After we were done, the masseurs left discreetly. Then he came over to my bed and tried to kiss me! I pushed him away. I felt so awful. He has a wife at home with two teenage girls. My question is – is it culturally ok for a single woman to hang out with a married man in China? Did I mislead him in agreeing on having dinner with him?”

I started laughing. People at the bus stop stared at me. I explained to her that as far as I knew, contrary to the stereotype of Chinese loving and respecting their families, successful married Chinese men loved massage parlors and mistresses. You didn’t mislead him; he misled himself, I assured her.

I laughed at the irony of Chinese still believing that Americans have loose morals and are always ready for casual sex, like in Sex And The City and Desperate Housewives.

“But I felt awful. Think about the wife and two kids!” She didn’t buy into my casual rationalizing. I laughed even harder. This is not America, Terry, where affairs are guilt-ridden and hush-hush. This is the China you came for, the Wild Wild East. I suggested that she talk to the guy, if only to relieve her own guilt.

“I did,” Terry responded immediately. “But he refused to talk about it. I told him that I hoped this ‘incident’ wouldn’t impair our friendship and possible future professional relationship. He just kept silent. In the end, he mumbled that it’s all a ‘cultural misunderstanding’. Am I missing something cultural here?”

How would I know Terry? This is a country I only half understand, I said. What is merely in flux and what’s essentially Chinese? And when does a cultural difference become a moral difference, and vice versa?

These are all interesting, if trivial, questions Terry. I said to her while still laughing, under the cold stare of the others still waiting at the bus stop.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Pay Per Fortune

A good friend called from Taipei on the 2nd day of the Chinese New Year to wish me a happy new year. I should go to a temple, he said; the 2nd day of the new year was the day to seek gods’ help in suppressing the evil spirits (压太岁), otherwise the spirits would harass me for the entire year.

I hung up the phone and realized that I had forgotten to ask whether I should go pray to Buddhist or Taoist gods. I searched online and couldn’t find the tradition of 压太岁 on the 2nd day of the new year. But my friend being from the tradition-minded Taiwan, he must’ve known better.

So I dragged my parents to the Green Ram Monastery.

The Green Ram Monastery is reputedly the largest Taoist Monastery in the entire Sichuan province. The legend holds that Lao-Tse (604-531 BCE), the founder of Taoism, once passed by Chengdu pulling a green ram. On the site where he delivered some teaching was later built a Taoist monastery. The monastery was already famous in the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907). One Tang emperor even sought refuge there in a peasant uprising. The current complex was built in the Qing Dynasty (AD 1644-1911); so was its namesake, two bronze rams with features from all of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals.

(Of course I didn’t know any of that when I went with my parents; I just googled it as I began writing. Growing up in Chengdu, we only knew there were two bronze rams whose noses we would rub for good fortune.)

We passed by a long line of people in ragged Mao-era clothes before we reached the gate of the monastery. Half of them were begging. The other half sat on low stools and laid out simple letter-size advertising in front, offering Taoist fortune-telling services. Neither group had any customers. The weather was warm though so most just sat back and squinted their eyes at the passers-by.

The monastery was having a swell business on that day. Many Chinese families were busy kowtowing from one temple to another, holding thick bundles of incense. Instead of offering 3 sticks of incense each time, as the tradition suggested, most lit up a thick bundle like a torch when they prayed for good fortune. The more the merrier, which seemed to be the guiding mantra for everything in China.

My parents didn’t believe in any religion; neither did I. But I still encouraged them to leave some cash in the donation boxes and pray to the myriad of Taoist gods. They prayed for their own health and of course, for me making a lot of money in 2006. We also lined up for a chance to walk to a huge wall of grey bricks, with our eyes shut tight, and touch the three big Chinese characters carved on it – Fortune (福), Prosperity (禄), Longevity (寿).

Traditions like these are probably dumb, yet still too beautiful to leave behind.
We visited the main hall, the Temple of The Three Pure Ones, at the end of a long stretch of temples. It was particularly crowded with worshipers since it was the only temple offering divination sticks.

As my mom’s insistence, I kowtowed three times and then picked up the bamboo box of divination sticks. I shook it with my eyes closed. The sticks rattled. Finally a stick jumped out. It’s 66, a lucky number in China.

A girl in jump suit directed me to a corner of the temple. I paid 10 yuan to a Taoist priest who handed me a sheet of ink paper associated with 66. My fortune was supposedly printed on it in Taoist jargons.

The girl in jump suit then directed me to one of the four diviners in the temple. The Taoist priests in the monastery all wear long robes and kept their long hair tied up in knots on top of their skull. This one, however, was in a traditional cotton coat and his hair was short.

He examined my fortune sheet and asked, “what do you want to know?”

“His career,” my mom jumped in. My dad concurred, “yes, his career.”

The diviner pondered for a moment, silently counting with the fingers of his left hand. He looked in his late 20s or early 30s, yet his calm demeanors exuded a wisdom beyond his age. Taoism is reputed to have a sophisticated system to predict the future. Many in China swore belief in the accuracy of its foretelling, if not in its gods.

Then the diviner started slowly, “This year will be a transition for your career.” That’s accurate, I thought; I had been transitioning close to 2 years, but this year had to be the year.

As if sensing my earnestness, he continued, “It won’t be that great, this year. You won’t make much money. (My parents tensed up, looking disappointed.) But this year will lay great foundation for the coming years. In 2007, your career will take off. (My parents relaxed into grateful smiles.) But,”

He paused and counted some more with his left fingers,

“I see you run into bad people in the months of April and July. You need to be careful.” He looked up at me with his eyes full of quiet concerns, and continued, “The nunnery next door had some jade charms blessed on new year’s eve. You should go check them out. Maybe buy one. It will help you through the difficult months. We have volunteers working here who can show you way to the nunnery.” He looked up and gestured towards the girl who lead us to him in the first place.

The girl came over and he added, “you don’t have to buy. Just go and take a look.”

I politely declined and led my parents out of the temple. Then I laughed out loud and hard – I knew in this modern China, such a popular tourist destination couldn’t resist the temptation to sell. Yes, fortunes had always been for sale in temples; but why this insidious cloaking?

I spotted a genuinely-looking Taoist priest sitting at a far corner of the temple. I stepped back in the temple and walked to him. The desk in front of him had a tiny Taoist ten-thousand-year calendar on it. The young priest looked positively ennuied.

I asked whether all fortune-tellers in the temple were priests from the monastery. He rolled his eyes at me, “can’t you tell who are real and who are not?”

Then why the monastery allowed fakes in the temple peddling bogus foretelling and jade charms? I persisted.

“Aiyaya, they are tourist guides. How do we dare pushing them out of the gate?” He shifted in his stool.

“You mean if you anger them, they’d no longer bring tourists to the monastery?”

He stole a look at the hustle-bustle around the fortune tellers on the other side of the temple, and avoided answering my question directly, “Karma is always at work. They will get what they deserve in the future.”

Impressed by his Buddhist wisdom, I took out my fortune sheet and asked for his real Taoist advice on my career.

He read for a brief moment in silence.

“You need to be careful about time.” He said.

“What about time? Be more efficient?” I asked.

“Time.” He pushed away my fortune sheet in utter boredom. “It’s all about time.”

And then he looked away.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Cured Memory

When I was in primary and high schools in the 1980s, preparation for the Chinese New Year would start one month before the holiday. My family, like every other family in the work unit, cured our own pork and made spicy sausages. I still remember watching my mom’s frost-bitten fingers massaging spices and salt onto pork chunks, and my dad, with the help of chopsticks, stuffing ground pork mixed with chili sauces into intestines freshly bought at the market. My sister and I, considered too young to handle meaty tasks, would huddle nearby around a tiny coal stove in the damn cold air, dreaming of the day of the holiday feast when we could have all the meat we’d want.

In the early 1980s, most families in China, including ours, could not afford meat every day. Our work unit, a construction company for coal-based power plants migrating and polluting all over China, had just returned to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in southwest China. The work unit had built walls in some single-floor warehouses, dividing the long stretched space into individual units. Each family got an unit which was in turn divided into a front and a back room with a wall half way up. In front of each unit, the work unit helped erect a small kitchen made of bricks. That’s our first kitchen where the home-made pork chunks and sausage links hanged off the roof.

After cured pork and sausages, the family then started making the ingredients for rice balls. Rice balls carry a special meaning for Chinese New Year because their round shape puns on Tuan Yuan, the Chinese word for family getting together. My dad would soak the sticky rice over a Saturday night, and then on Sunday, my sister and I would feed the sticky rice into a tiny hole of a stone roller. My dad never let me to push the roller around. It always took a while, and quite some spilled scoops of sticky rice, before our feeding rhythm got in sync with my dad’s rolling. Out of the roller came the ground sticky rice like diluted milkshake. We collected it in a cloth bag, tied the bag tight, and squeezed out the water by leaving the bag under the heavy top of the stone roller. After a day, my dad would take out the now semi-dry sticky rice, and leave it air dry in small chunks on big round bamboo trays.

While the ground sticky rice was being dried, my sister and I cracked open peanuts and knocked open walnuts, which always seemed to tak an entire afternoon. Raw peanuts and walnuts were roasted in our small iron wok over our tiny coal stove. My dad then chopped them into tiny bits with a meat cleaver, mixed them with roasted sesame ground in a mortar, and added in a lot of freshly rendered lard and sugar. The lard solidified the whole mix into sweet stuffing which we would use for months afterwards for rice balls and steamed buns.

Sichuanese have always been more obsessed with food (Cantonese may beg to differ). The home-made holiday fare thus provided popular sources of neighborhood gossip and family pride. Before the arrival of Coca-cola and Maxwell Instant Coffee, home-made cured meat and rice-ball stuffing were part of the holiday gift-giving which would be repeatedly re-gifted, since every family already had so much of its own.

On New Year’s Eve, our immediate family would get together for a feast. My dad usually cooked (Sichuanese men are proud of being good cooks; me no exception) for a whole day for the family of 7. Then on New Year’s day or the day after, all of us would visit my grand uncle’s family of 4 for another banquet. A couple of days later, we would invite my grand uncle’s family back to my grandpa’s place for yet another dinner. Everyday the adults played mah-jong which we kids were forbidden to touch.

Family visits and dinners would last until the 15th day of the new year when we all went out for the lantern festival. The entire population of Chengdu would appear out checking the lanterns in the People’s Park. It would be so crowded that my parents often spent most of the time nervously checking around to make sure my sister and I didn’t get lost. In those days the lanterns were elaborate and colorful, like the floats in Pasadena’s Rose Parade; maybe people had more time then, or maybe a child’s eyes expanded the vision out of proportion.

Slowly, the celebration started to change. People made more money and every family gradually bought a TV set. My parents moved three times, each time into a bigger apartment. CCTV’s new year’s eve gala show became a new holiday ritual before we figured out how to learn back the old rituals disrupted by the Cultural Revolution. There were more varieties on the new year dinner table – more takeouts from neighborhood restaurants, including shredded pig’s ear and beef tripe soaked in chili oil, roasted ducks and cakes, and fewer stir fries that would require lengthy manual preparation at home. New Year’s Eve dinner had to finish by 8pm so we could all go back to our respective home and watch the gala show.

More people joined the family as well. My two aunts brought their dates to the family feasts. Then my two cousins from my grand uncle’s family did the same. They all got married and had kids. My widowed grandpa remarried. The last time I came home for the holiday in 1992, 14 years ago, the family gathering had swelled to too big a size for the cooks to handle. Preparation had to start days in advance.

During the 12 years in the US, I stopped celebrating Chinese New Year. At most my Chinese friends and I would go to a Chinese restaurant and have General Gao’s Chicken. Everybody was busy studying and later working. The celebration was reduced to an obligatory phone call home. My parents and I would ask each other, “Have you eaten?”, and “How was the food?”.

When I turned 30, I started hosting Thanksgiving dinners for my friends, mostly Chinese immigrants who, consciously or subconsciously, looked for an anchor in a strange land. I enjoyed heating up turkeys, making mashed potato, and cooking up some casserole dish the recipe of which I found on But nothing, nothing compared to the cured meat and home-made sausage links in my memory.

This year I finally made it back to my hometown for Chinese New Year. The family is scattered everywhere. My sister is traveling in the US while my brother-in-law took my niece to his family in Gansu. Aunt Rongling’s family moved to Shanghai. The communication with my grand uncle’s family has dwindled to almost zero because his family has grown to a size of 8. There’s always been squabbling through the years which we as kids were not aware of; and each family fared differently in the country’s economic miracle, which makes it hard to avoid jealousy and gossip.

Gone were the home-made cured meat and sausage links. Everybody got lazy, and pickier about food. No home-made food could compete with the restaurant cooking which is getting oilier and spicier every season. Now only stores still have cured meat and sausage links hanging off their roofs. Few make rice balls anymore; there were ready-to-cook ones sold in plastic bags in the supermarkets.

We had our family get-together dinner two days before the new year so my mom could have undivided attention to the CCTV gala show on New Year’s eve. I volunteered to cook for a dinner at home. My mom just sneered, “you still know how to cook?” I hesitated. The turkey and the mashed potato and broccoli casserole would never fly in Sichuan.

We went to a restaurant and had a set dinner for 500 yuan, the same food I could have in a Sichuan restaurant in Beijing. Sitting at the dinner table with the 8 still left in Chengdu in our immediate family, I missed the days when we were a lot poorer, when my sister and I had to be cajoled into helping make rice ball stuffing in the cold winters with no heating in that tiny apartment of ours, when we seemed to have a lot more relatives to play with and to visit, and whenever I visited a friend, his/her family would force me to taste their own cured meat and rice balls. The country is developing, so is the distance between me and the past I remember.

I handed out red envelopes at the dinner table to my grandpa, my aunt, my parents and my young cousin who’s 13. It’s my duty now to support the family, in whatever trivial means. Alas, how I miss the days when a 5-yuan bill in the red envelope my grandpa gave me would make me jump with joy; it would send me and my sister hurrying to the firecracker store nearby. All the families would get out when the New Year stroke, and lit the fireworks family-by-family, with all cheering.

It’s all changed now. No firework is allowed in the city proper. The wealthy would drive out to the suburbs, after their big family banquets in the fancy restaurants, and light up fancy fireworks which cost a fortune. The holiday rituals, however few we used to have (god knows how little we Mainland Chinese knew about our own holidays, compared to our “compatriots” in Hong Kong and Taiwan), are further eroding away in this shiny materialistic new China.

As I was reminiscing about change, my cousin got antsy in her seat. “Can I go home to watch TV now?” she asked her mother, my aunt.

Her mother was annoyed, “sit and eat some more food. Wait for the adults to finish.”

I paused my emoting and studied my cousin’s restlessness for a beat. Alas, whom am I kidding? I didn’t like the holidays that much when I was a kid – it was mostly a bore to go through all the visits and family meals; there was always too much food that nipped the pre-holiday craving within 5 minutes of the first holiday dinner, too much waiting for the adults to finish their mah-jong, too many deafening firecrackers on both sides of the narrow streets that hurt the eardrums, too many ultra-sweet rice balls for breakfast every day, and too much cured meat which the family couldn’t finish until early summer.

It’s the memory that’s playing the tricks, tricking me into thinking that I used to have Hallmark-Classic holidays in which relatives were nicer, food was better and time was, less transient.

“Don’t stop yet, eat some more.” My mom prodded me with her elbow. My aunt asked when I would bring home a girlfriend. My grandpa asked when I could get a proper job to make some proper money. My dad looked at me earnestly over the spicy dishes, “Listen to all your relatives. You are not young anymore. Better start worrying about retirement.”

I smiled at my family and my memory and dug my chopsticks into the steamed fish. Memory is like family, often dysfunctional, often subjecting us to a bondage that suffocates up close, yet one misses with sweet longing once far away. Better leave it hanging off from the roof top like the cured meat and sausage links, and let it stroke from a distance the nostalgia of make-believes.

Happy New Year.

What's Truth Good For?

[Below is a long comment from a Chinese blogger on my blog entry What’s Memory Good For? on MSN Spaces. I’m not sure being a statistic sample of one, how much of it could represent the opinions of young people born in the 80s. But I greatly appreciates its sincerity and thus translated it below for those who can’t read Chinese.]

This is a warm article. I could even feel your compassion. “What’s memory good for?” probably came from that sympathy. Therefore, it’d be missing the point to discuss with you the meaning of learning from history. However, as part of the younger generation mentioned in your article, I’d very much like to share some of my own experience and thinking. Maybe we could see how we came to be from the history teachings we received.

When the Scar Literature (note: a literature movement that focused on the sufferings in the Cultural Revolution) was becoming popular in the 80s, I was often playing jumping games with my playmates in our yard. I was only six when the June 4th movement (note: in 1989) took place. I received school education in the 90s, and my brain was stuffed to the brim with the official orthodox history. (In our politics classes, some teachers required that for some concepts we should know them by heart until we could recite them backwards.)

That time there was the high political pressure right after the June 4th student movement. Our parents, out of concern and love for us, didn’t mentioned anything related to politics; the Cultural Revolution was an even more closely guarded secret. As a result our understanding of history then was completely dominated by official propaganda. Not until the 90s when we started high school, did some popular media, such as TV shows and magazines, start reveal bits and pieces of the hitherto sealed history of the Cultural Revolution. Even that was limited to stealth disclosure. In fact, any reflection on the Cultural Revolution and the June 4th could only be done furtively, even now.

Consequently, the education environment that we grew up in could be regarded as “very strange”, if not “deforming”. For the official version (I clearly remember that in the history textbooks, the historical significance of the Cultural Revolution is that “it proved the indestructible life force of our party”) is far different from that popular among the people. Even to our childish judgment, we knew the folk version was very likely true.

However, the truth had to display itself in this furtive way outside of the mainstream. The untrue is strong, while the true is weak. What did it make us realize? That this is a country ruled by lies! (Although I haven’t done any strict statistical polling, I’m pretty confident that the majority of those born in the 80s think immediately of “bogus” upon hearing the word “politics”.)

Meanwhile, young people, especially teenagers without much power of judgment, have strong adaptability to the mainstream. We immediately learned how to deal with sham. We knew in our hearts that the concepts from the politics and history classes were pompous, empty and false, yet at the same time we could recite them backwards and forwards. Memorization begot high grades; there’s no need to think, to discern, to discover the truth – What if there were conflicts between the facts and the textbooks? As long as we memorized the textbooks we could pass the College Entrance Exams! When we received brilliant high grades from our politics and history exams, we completely adjusted to the untrue.

However, we discovered that more horrifying than our adapting was our powerlessness. One time, I asked the teacher a question about the Cultural Revolution – could one sentence from the textbook be not entirely true? The teacher said, “for what purpose do you want to get it clear?” After a brief upset, I returned to memorizing the textbook. In font of falsity the truth is powerless. In front of government’s ideological control independent thinking is powerless. This made us realize from very young that to everything in this country, we could only accept, being powerless to change; just as those obviously untrue in the history and politics textbooks, we could only accept everything.

The beginning of your article mentioned that our generation has the characteristic of being materialistic. Indeed we are. We have another characteristic – lacking sense of social responsibility. Please don’t blame us. For we in subconscious know we don’t have the capability to change the defects in this society. Still one more characteristic – too much of an old head on young shoulders. (A person born in the 70s will be angry at the inequalities in our society; yet for a person born in the 80s, the attitude is: it’s so very normal; isn’t everything nowadays just like that?)

Likewise, please don’t blame us. For we adapted to the untrue too early. Once we got used to the opposite of “the true”, it took no effort at all to adjust to the opposites of “the good” and “the beautiful”. This is the aftereffect of the history education during social transformation. No political freedom. No free thinking. We could only pursuer material freedom. What you said about “live freely” is only on the surface. From the perspective of eating well and dressing warmly, a panda bear also lives freely; but that is after all not a human way of living.

Having written this much (there’s still more to write), I think you’ve already known what I’d like to express. What’s memory good for? Haha. What if we changed it to What’s TRUTH good for? I understand the compassion and tenderness in your heart. But I’d like to say, that our generation has been ruthlessly deformed into panda bears. I hope the next generation will be able to openly discuss the facts, and accept the truth.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Sayonara, Chinafool

The editor of Beijing Weekend, the English weekly I'm writing a column for, considered my pseudonym Chinafool unbecoming. So I chose a new pseudonym, Beijing Loafer, for both the column and my MSN Spaces mirror blog which the column links to.

Right before I moved to Beijing, I read W. Somerset Maughm's Razor's Edge. In that book, when asked what he planned to do in Paris, Larry replied, "to loaf". That word stuck, and accompanied me for almost two years now in Beijing.

To avoid any possibility of multiple personality disorder, I hereby change my Blogger identity to Beijing Loafer as well.

To Larry, to loaf was to seek. I hope the same for me and all the loafers out there.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

What's Memory Good For?

(All quotes were transcribed from my video footage.)

Before I went to the seminar on Memory and Literature last Saturday, I had lunch with a friend of a friend who’s writing an article on urban Chinese for a British newspaper. She asked what I thought of the generation gaps. I’m not familiar with the mindset of the younger generations, I said; my observation was that they seem more into materialism, consumer culture and individualism.

I hastened to add that I consider those good traits. Between ideology and consumer culture, I’d chose the latter any day. China appears to have too much baggage on its shoulder – history, nationalism, glory and despair. It’s liberating to see young people able to live freely, unlike the older generations, able to live for themselves without the burden of memories for once, I commented.

After lunch I dragged my camera gear to the Sanwei Bookstore for the seminar. I had planned to stay only for an hour. A few writers from the church I’m following for my documentary were going to be there. I simply wanted to shoot some footage of them in action outside of the church.

As I waited, audience gradually streamed in the spacious meeting room on the 2nd floor of the bookstore. The lantern lights and the Ming (or Qing, pardon my ignorance of Chinese furniture) furniture gave the room an elegant air of the traditionally learned. The organizers invited a dozen guest speakers who sat around two long tables in the center. The rest of room was soon filled with eager readers, a few of whom had to stand up in the aisle.

The host started by thanking everyone for their courage in attending, because there were cars parked outside belonging to plainclothes cops. Several foreign journalists were present. At that point I realized that the bookstore was the same that housed Dai Qing when she gave a detailed report of the failed effort to stop the gigantic Three Gorges Project. My camera seemed to be constantly pulling me to the political hotspots in Beijing.

The ostensible purpose of the seminar was to discuss two memoirs recently published. One author was sick so the talk was mostly on the other one, in which the author, a lady in her fifties, recounted the sufferings of her dad, once a government minister and one of the biggest Rightists condemned by Mao in the late 1950s, through the Anti-Rightist movement and the Cultural Revolution. Most of the speakers praised the publishing house’s courage to publish the memoir in China, even though it had to be censored, thus shorter than the one published in Hong Kong.

The afternoon ended up being an emotionally-charged three-hour shoot for me. The guest speakers, all prominent writers, literary critics, scientists and philosophers, denounced the system’s attempt to stifle people’s expression in literature, to censor the truth in news, and to prevent people from remembering the past.

“What great misfortune of you having to be Chinese?!” The literary critic quoted the exclamation of He Zuoxiu during his speech, “He Zuoxiu lacked any human decency when he said that. But he expressed the truth – what great misfortune!” He choked up. “Being Chinese means you can’t hear the truth, nor can you say the truth. This is an enormous tragedy. So in my opinion, any fictional and non-fictional literary work has to share one common characteristic – it has to tell the truth.”

The critic was once the head of a rebel group in the Cultural Revolution. He had witnessed the deaths of many friends in the factional fighting. Now he’s trying to compile a list of the dead. He frankly admitted that he didn’t get modernism and post-modernism, because Chinese literature could not even enjoy the basic expression of the truth.

Some speakers commented on the philosophical and historical aspects of preserving a nation’s memory. Most, however, expressed outrage at Chinese being unable to talk about our past. An old scientist from the Beijing University told his story of being a Rightist for 20 years and witnessing the deaths around him in the labor camp. He choked up and paused for many times. The host had to cut his speech short to allow others to speak.

A writer with wild hair reminded the audience that memories are forbidden not only to the Rightists and the Counter-revolutionaries from the Cultural Revolution, but also to the peasants. Even worse, because the peasants don’t have the writing skills, they can’t even write down their sufferings, publishable or not.

He banged the table several times in rage. For he’s a peasant’s son.

When the guest speakers finally finished their round, many in the audience raised their hands high up in the air for their chance to speak. A middle-aged woman humbly started her story:

“Today I’m very nervous because I’m very excited from hearing all the stories. Ok, (to the organizer) I know I only have three minutes. My farther is in his 90s now. He was an old Rightist, a historical counter-revolutionary and a current counter-revolutionary. Still today he hasn’t got rid of these three hats.”

“What I want to tell today. I’m already very moved.” She started sobbing. “I want to say something about fatherly love. My father suffered so much. I want to talk about childhood memory. The clearest one I have. At that time, the rebels, the Red Guards. I was very little, just a few years old. My entire family knelt in a single file on the ground, in freezing winter. It was so cold that the ground cracked. We knelt on the ground. We were very poor then, because my father had those three hats. Then my dad said this to the head of the rebel group. He said, my youngest daughter is very young, can she be allowed to stand up instead of kneeling on the freezing ground and catching cold? He hadn’t even finished… Because I was so little, I didn’t see exactly how the Red Guards knocked down my father. When my father raised his head again, I saw my father’s eyes, with deep fatherly love, apologizing to his little daughter that he couldn’t get her to stand up from the freezing ground. Since then, my love for my father… so deep… Have I run out the three minutes I have?” She asked the organizer while tears were streaming down her face.

Nobody had the heart to stop her so she continued. “So I’ve been remembering that. I can never forget that incident. My father’s face full of blood. His eyes were bleeding. His mouth was bleeding. His body was shaking. And he was begging for a favor for me. All because he had those three tall hats. Today I’m so excited. I don’t have much education background. Sometimes I still ask my father, ‘Old man, in 1949 the airplane was waiting for you, why didn’t you go back to Taiwan? Why didn’t you go back to Taiwan?’ My father said, because I’m Chinese, I still love my country, love my land. So because of this single foolish thought of his, he didn’t get on the airplane and suffered a lifetime.”

“So I hope that he could write down his story.” The woman continued as her voice was soaked in tears. “Many of you know how difficult our lives have been. But I don’t have the skills. When I wanted to write down the story, my father was very agitated. He didn’t allow any mentioning of it in the household. He only let out tiny bits of his story here and there. So I want to bring this memoir (note: the subject of the seminar) to him, to show him that the society is not as closed as he thinks, the communist party… Aiya, this I don’t dare to comment on… In fact my father keep on saying he’s grateful for the communist party. But he’s lying. Nobody has the heart to confront him about this lie, or know how to. But he IS lying!”

By this point her anger had overcome her sadness. “We as his sons and daughters, we couldn’t convince him to write down the sufferings of his life, for historical record. So today I’m so moved. I don’t have much education so I can’t speak well. I can only speak this little bit. The three minutes are probably up already. I don’t want to say anymore, because there were even more painful memories, which would sadden me further. So I could only speak for these three minutes. But if the audience want me to, I’d like to tell you another painful story…”

The host had to kindly ask her to sit down because there were many other people in the audience dying to speak.

I left the bookstore after the seminar ended, emotionally drained. I don’t count myself among one of those patriotic Chinese, yet I wanted to weep for my nation and my people. There are so many wounds from the past 50 years that still haven’t healed. And there’s no healing in sight with the system’s gag order in place on our past, on our collective memory.

The literary critic had said the following in his speech - “Rage and compassion alone won’t save us. Sometimes we consider we stand on the side of righteousness if we are enraged by the ugliness. After our rage, however, we remain silent the next time we witness the ugliness. Sometimes we shed tears in front of sufferings. But nothing comes out of the tears. And we continue to live, to live numbly.”

It’s been 97 years since the May 4th Movement in 1919 yet we Chinese are still fighting against the tendency to silently suffer, fighting for a chance to express freely.

I stopped short my reminiscence and ran to the Oriental Plaza to watch King Kong with friends at one of Beijing’s finest multiplexes. Scurrying by the Givenchy and Gucci stores in the fancy shopping mall, I felt as if walking in a completely different world, a world in which young people, dressed in designer fashions and wearing happy smiles, didn’t have the burden of or care for memories.

We sat down in the theater with our US$9 tickets. The audiences were munching on pop corns or Nestle chocolate bars. In this new China where nobody seemed to have painful memories to suffer through, I couldn’t help wondering – Do we have to remember if the memory only pains us? Do we have to trouble the happy youth with the past?

The nation seemed to have moved on, have made huge strides, since those memories. People are happy making their money, buying their apartment and cars; and they brush aside the memories that may slow them down. What’s the point of remembering then? So we can avoid repeating the past mistakes? But it surely looks certain that China will never go back to the communist ideological craze ever again.

Yet while I watched King Kong fighting with the dinosaurs, I couldn’t forget the tears in the afternoon or people’s desperate desire to tell their stories. I understood the futility of our painful memories competing with Hollywood blockbusters for the nation’s attention. I also understood that practically, we may not need to remember to have a happy life. But we have to remember. We have to be able to remember. For otherwise the ones before us have never existed, and we will cease to exist the day our hearts stop beating. Memories are what make us exist, what give us dignity.

Right next to me in the theater, a girl started crying. King Kong and Naomi Watts were watching the sunset together. She cried for the rest of the movie.

I hoped that she would forever remember, that one day in a big theater, she cried over a non-human that acted more human than us humans.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Borrow A Mouthful

[Below is the transcript of part of the dialogue I had with a Beijing cabdriver yesterday, thanks to my tiny MP3 voice recorder which I carry everywhere now with me. Mr. Wang is in his late 40s. He’s been driving cabs in Beijing for 20 years. Ten years ago, he made 3-4000 yuan a month, which was a lot of money. Now he makes only 1800-2000/month (US$200-250), below the average income for Beijingers, thanks to rising gas prices and intensifying competition. His wife, laid off from her job, brings in 900/month. They have a daughter in college. The family income is just enough for them to get by. Mr. Wang suffers from high blood pressure, back pain, and gout. Gout rendered his feet swollen but he can’t afford taking a break, because there’s no sick leave and the monthly due to the cab companies is 5000 yuan.

Before the dialogue below, Mr. Wang had just spent 30 minutes missing the old days under Mao and lambasting the medical reforms, CCTV and the communist party.]


Me (attempting to steer him towards more positive thoughts): Do you think there are still many people who want to work as cab drivers?

Wang: A lot. There are a lot.

Me: Oh, so the jobs still provide some stability, at least bringing in food on the table.

Wang: How should I put this? Many cab drivers complain. Of course they complain because they only make one to two thousand yuan a month. They complain at the company, in front of company officials. I don’t like to complain, so I’m usually quiet. But I was surprised that one time, a company official said this, “if you all think driving cabs is a tough business, tiring and not earning much money, who the hell asks you to remain in this business? The cab companies are not dragging you into this business, are they? In fact, y’all squeezed your ways into this business.”

I heard this and I felt very upset, you know? I stood up and walked over to him. I said, “Manager, how come the words you just said bothered me? The colleagues complained that this business has no money and is very exhausting, and a few other things. Why can’t they complain? There are areas that could be improved, you know. What you said about us squeezing our ways into this biz made me think of a lot of things from the past.” He asked what kind of things from the past. I asked if I could ask him a few questions, if that’s ok. He said sure. I asked if he had ever watched the movie The White-Haired Woman (note: a very famous communist propaganda movie about evil landlords and despairing peasants in the dark ages of Nationalist China)? He answered yeah, I’ve watched it. Then I asked, do you remember the evil landlord Huang Shiren who exploit the peasants? He said, yeah, I remember. I said everyone knew he was exploiting the peasants and sucking everything out of them, but the peasants still went to work for him; why is that? Why is that, I’d like to ask you? I said that to the manager.

Wang (turns to me and asking in the wry Beijing way): Young fellow, do you think what I said was sharp or not?

Me (chuckle and admire his quick wit): Great question, I wouldn’t have thought of that retort myself?”

Wang (turning serious): I told him I have one more question. Have you heard about the mines in Fen Zhou, I asked him. (His voice rises to a piercing level) Before the collapse, the Fen Zhou’s mine was dangerously flooded with water but still people went in to work. These people they knew they were being exploited, oppressed, and extorted, yet they let themselves be extorted. This is a heart-rending situation. You, you guys shamelessly ask us, who on earth ask us to stay in this business? You sit in your comfy office and make over ten or twenty thousand yuan a month. We only make two after toiling for an entire month. You are sucking our blood. Right? (pause) He said nothing. The manager said nothing. (pause) It’s not that we don’t want an alternative. But we don’t have one. Isn’t that right? We can only do this to borrow a mouthful of food from you, selling our flesh to borrow a mouthful. (pause) We are the sacrifice of the market reform. Reform and opening up are good, things are getting better. There has been development, a lot of it. But we still have to borrow a mouthful. How is this different from the days of Huang Shiren?

Me (doing my rational bit): The reform is complex. There are different groups of people; some benefited, other didn’t. Those benefiting would say the reform has been good.

Wang: Yes, there are people who benefited. We don’t object to people making a lot of money. We don’t object to people eating and drinking fancy stuff. We don’t object to any of that. But we can’t accept the “merciful” words from those who benefited, words telling us that we should be grateful for the jobs we have. Of course we’ll never realize our dreams. But can’t we at least dream a little? Who doesn’t have a brain that thinks and desires? Struggle? How dare we struggle? It’s not that the Beijing cab drivers never went on strike. In 98, the airport cabs did just that. No, it’s in 99. August 1st 1999, I remember very clearly. July 1st was the birthday of our party. Very clearly.

Me: What happened in the end?

Wang: They got sentenced for “seriously disrupting social order”! Striking is a right from our constitution. But they got sentenced. Who dared to strike again?

[Mr. Wang declined to speak on camera. He said the day he quit his job at the cab company, he’d let me interview him. Mr. Wang is a typical Beijing cab driver in the sense that he’s talkative and extremely opinionated. Most cab drivers would open up and share with you their lives’ hardship if you ask them. But Mr. Wang’s boiling anger is rare. I sincerely hope that he’s an oddball, a rare angry man among the 17 million Beijing residents, which he claimed he’s not. For otherwise I’d have to start believing the bleak pictures painted by some Western media about China. ]

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Good Shots

I fell asleep while waiting for the cops to come. I had planned to visit a family church in Hebei province over the weekend. On Thursday, however, I heard that on the previous Sunday, several cops harassed the family church in Beijing that I’ve been following. They visited the church after most of the congregation were gone, and copied down the ID card information of the person in charge. Nobody could be sure whether the cops were targeting the church itself or they were simply following a couple of the prominent dissidents who went to the church. Nobody could be sure either whether they would be back the following weekend, because they didn’t leave any clear warning.

I decided to wait and see, in that underground church set in a two bedroom apartment 20 floors above ground.

After the opening prayers and hymn singing, the preacher addressed the congregation of about 20 crammed in the small living room. He asked everyone to help look for a new apartment for the church, as the current landlord refused to renew the lease, perhaps under police pressure. He stressed that the church would continue to welcome everyone, including those attracting undesirable government attention. Then he went on to read and explain the Bible. After listening to it for 10 minutes, I went to the next room and fell asleep on the sofa.

I woke up 20 minutes later, after dreaming myself heroically going to jail for doing the documentary. I grabbed my camera and headed towards the living room. Just as I was wondering how long the preaching would continue, a loud knock hit the door from the outside.

Everyone turned to look at the door. Usually when a believer comes, a buzz from the security intercom downstairs would precede the door knock. The air froze. I turned on my camera.

The door was opened. In came two cops in uniforms and two men in plainclothes. The cop in the front started in a mild manner, “one of your neighbor complained to the local police station that you are causing disturbance here.”

Everyone considered that a lame excuse. A couple of believers volunteered to call the Environmental Agency. “They can come and measure the noise level of our singing and praying. In no way could we be disturbing our neighbors. Plus,” they exclaimed, “all of our neighbors know we are having a church service here. Why would they call the cops instead of directly talking to us?”

The cop didn’t know how to respond. The man in the brown coat stepped forward, “don’t you know that having a church gathering is illegal?” That statement immediately draw heated response from the believers. In the audiences sat a prominent human rights lawyer and a Ph.D. student in law at the famous Peking University. China’s constitution guarantees religion rights, they said.

“I know you guys would be saying that, so I brought this.” The man in brown coat waved a booklet with the national insignia on the cover. “This is the regulations on religious activities in China. What you cited is just one line in the Constitution. This regulation fully explains what’s allowed by that line. Did you guys register with the local police as a religious group?”

The law student’s agitation went up a notch. We are getting petitions for the national congress to review the constitutionality of these laws, he said with his fist held tight. Another chimed in that the congregation were not a religious organization, but rather a casual gathering, thus not subject to the government regulation.

I kept my camera rolling the whole time, about 2 meters away from the center of actions, in a state of surreal daze. Various thoughts bubbled up in my heads like those in the VH1 Pop-up Videos:

-Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m filming the cops suppressing the family church, in real time!
-Oh shit, the cops seem way too reasonable and articulate. And calmer than the believers! I need more viciousness. Please!
-What should I do now shot-wise? I have zoomed in and out, panned left and right. What else can I do to make the final viewing more dramatic???
-Why are they letting me continue filming? Why? This is unreal!!!

I stood there as if watching myself filming a legal debate in front of a Supreme Court that China doesn’t have. I felt almost sorry for the brown-coat man who’s not equipped to argue with the legal scholars. “I’m not here to expel the group. I just want to warn you about the illegality of gathering here,” he proclaimed with an aloofness which could be interpreted as a threat or mere bureaucratic perfunctoriness. No, the group countered – it’s you who’d barged into a private premise illegally with no warrant or permit.

He then asked to see everyone’s ID. The group responded no again – China’s law stipulates that the citizens be required to show their IDs only to those with court warrant.

The brown-coat man’s cool peeled off, layer by layer, with each argument he lost. He checked around for a target. Then he saw me.

“What are you filming?” he yelled, “you are invading my image rights.”

“Hey, I’m doing a private video on this church. You came into this picture yourself.” I answered half-heartedly. As a huge fan of the rule of law and the courtroom dramas in the US Supreme Court, I wondered if indeed I was invading on his image rights.

“Turn it off, damn it.” With that he took hold of my camera, “I want you to erase the part with me in it.”

I hold on to my camera. Is that a reasonable request? But those are my good shots! The group showered him again with more legal enlightenment – as a public employee working for the government, cops don’t have image rights.

I could see the frustration boiling in the brown-coat man. He found his outlet on me, the only legal weakness in this unfortunate expedition of his. He dragged me and my camera into the room next door, where I had been napping 10 minutes earlier. “Give me the damn tape!” He screamed.

I fought to keep my hands on my camera. Is this really happening? What is this? Am I heroically fighting with a vicious cop? Or should I observe the law to give him the tape which he may truly have rights to? Would it be ethical to show footage of him even if I ended up keeping the footage? Why didn’t any of the books on indie filmmaking discuss the ethical issues around dealing with cops? What does the law say? Oh how I wish China could have a real Supreme Court to clarify issues like the proper ethical ways of dealing with a cop. Oh my god, I’m going to lose my good shots! How can I keep it?! How can I?!

Garbage thoughts kept on popping up in my brain, making me dumb and confused. I kept saying no to him, without even knowing no to what.

The brown-coat man finally yanked the camera out of my hands. “Give me the tape!” He fumbled with the camera but couldn’t figure out how to open up the tape deck, thanks to Sony’s ingenious design. He swung the camera around in utter frustration. My expensive shot-gun mic was dangling below the camera, still attached via a cable. He kept on twisting and banging the camera to get out the tape. “Damn it!” He stared at me with a piercing anger, “I warn you. Don’t cross us!”

My out-of-body legal rumination suddenly evaporated. At that brief moment, I stopped seeing the complexity of modern China, and quit playing with the Constitutionality issue of religion rights. I could no longer sympathize with him because he’s merely a puppet in this insecure system of political and cultural ideologues. I looked into his eyes and saw a trace of evil glinting over his rage. Not the evil of the communists, of the oppressors, or of Satan; but a hatred, out of deep frustrations, and a desire to destroy, both of which seem to have deep root in our culture, and in the current political system with no reliable legal recourse, are unhindered by anything except for a consciousness that nevertheless could be easily crossed to reveal the evil in all of us.

“Give me the fucking tape, or there goes your expensive camera.” He held the camera high. I was transfixed by the sight of a man sent on a mission to hinder and possibly destroy, holding my camera with all my good shots in it. He was determined to accomplished something before calling it quits, and there’d be no legal recourse or appeal to whatever ended up happening.

Between losing my good shots and losing my camera plus the good shots, I chose the former.

I gave him the tape. They left. I stood in the room kicking myself – I should’ve been more strategic! I should’ve switched tapes every 5 minutes! I shouldn’t have acted so greedily as I’m investing in the stock market! The rule does apply everywhere – what sounded too good to be true probably is!

When I went back to the living room with my camera and a new tape, the cops were gone. The preacher was leading another prayer. He expressed great joy that none of the congregation ran away for fear of the cops. He told the group that they would continue to gather even though the cops would surely come back to harass them again.

They prayed.

I kept filming.

They prayed for God’s guidance on overcoming the obstacles. They prayed for the many persecuted in the countryside for their beliefs. They prayed for the cops. Many cried.

I kept filming.

Still a devout atheist, I felt my nose itchy to sniffle. I didn’t know whether it was from mere exhaustion or from witnessing the real human drama right in front of my eyes, in real time.

I held back the urge to sniffle and kept filming.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

My friend Lynn, an American reporter based in Beijing, introduced me to two Qi Gong master friends of hers at her Christmas party. “You really believe that?” I asked her quietly in the kitchen after the introduction. “Yeah.” She replied with the usual enthusiasm, “Last time when Mr. Liang used his Qi on me, I felt a strong force pushing me. Her wife over there,” she pointed at a plain-looking middle-aged woman with long plaited hair, “is supposed to be an even more powerful master.”

I was reluctant to buy into her enthusiasm. I had my experience with Qi Gong in 1986 when I was in junior high. Qi Gong is this Chinese breathing exercise developed from Taoist and Buddhist traditions to improve Qi, the vital energy that moves our body and the universe. Depending on the school of Qi Gong you follow, the practice promises better health, magic cure for sickness or the ultimate path – eternal life in some faraway dream land.

The early and mid 80s in China was a time of rapid opening up and eager absorption of Eastern and Western knowledge. Freud’s dream analysis, Zen comic books, UFO sightings, supernatural power in humans, and Qi Gong were among the many trends that captivated the entire country one time or another. Qi Gong masters would tour the country giving talks to packed auditoriums. Thousands and thousands in the audience would be induced into a state of mass hysteria (or euphoria). Many felt the strong Qi from the masters. There would be bawling, screaming, and reputedly instant cure of the incurable. Many became devout followers.

In my parents’ work unit more and more people were practicing Qi Gong in the morning. Some would be standing still in front of trees, some walking, some yelling into the sky, per instructions of the different schools of practice, and all involving some repetitive movements of the limbs as the body undulate with the Qi. My parents were among the few who are too negative to believe in anything. The only time I remember them mentioning Qi Gong was when a colleague of theirs started practicing Qi Gong after having been diagnosed with colon cancer.

The colleague died two months later, after trying all of the popular Qi Gong schools.

As a teenager, I was curious about all the hype and wanted to experience the magic Qi. So when a Qi Gong master came to our neighborhood to set up a seminar, I went.

I remember the seminar was at a local school, in a small classroom warmly lit and full of uncles and aunties from the work unit. The master started explaining Qi Gong by citing the Chinese classic fantasy novels, especially my favorite, Journey to The West. According to him, all the deities in that book were simply Qi Gong masters who had attained eternal life and magic powers through practice. “Do you know why Lao Tse in that book has a greenish light in the cloud he rides? That’s the color of Qi of the highest level.” He exclaimed. All the uncles and aunties nodded in utter deference. The fictional account of a Monkey King’s adventure to India apparently had very materialistic basis and represented the highest form of our Chinese civilization.

To further prove the power of Qi, the whole class meditated in silence, with the two palms closed facing each other in front of the chests. We were instructed to pray for the middle fingers of our right hands to grow longer. After a minute, as people slowly got out of the meditation, sporadic wows and ahs erupted in the room - the middle fingers of the right hands indeed looked longer than the left ones!

After demonstrating this remarkable feat to my classmates for a few times, I forgot about Qi Gong. The celebrity masters slowly went out of fashion – some went overseas, some arrested for fraud or political reasons (depending on whom one listens to). The country got caught up in heated political discussions in 1989. I got caught up in the TOEFL and GRE and went to America. While in the States, I heard Falun Gong, a new school of Qi Gong practice, became hugely popular and the government cracked down on it. One of my university friend, now an established professor at an US university, got black-listed by the government after he presided over a local chapter of Falun Gong in the US.

As a former PhD student in science, I had become skeptical, if not outright critical, of Qi Gong’s claims of magic powers. But after having lived in the political correct US for so long, I felt obliged to suspend my disbelief when discussing the claims of an old tradition worshipped by many. So when I found myself standing right next to Mrs. Liang, the super-powerful Qi Gong master, in Lynn’s kitchen at the Christmas party, I asked about her story.

Thus started Mrs. Liang’s narrative, for a good hour, with me nodding my head every minute and chiming in an “ooh” or “ahh” once in a while:

Mrs. Liang grew up in a poor village in Jilin province in northeastern China. When she was little, a fortune teller told her parents that she was destined to save the masses but they thought the fortune teller crazy. When she was fourteen, a Taoist priest from the Wutai Mountain (Wutai is one of the four Buddhist mountains in China; I guess there could be a Taoist temple among the hundreds of Buddhist monasteries there) identified her as the star pupil divinely revealed to him in a dream. The priest had traveled far and wide to locate her.

But her parents refused to let her go with an old priest. After the priest reluctantly left, the young Mrs. Liang suffered from frequent seizures until her parents came to their senses and took her to the Wutai Mountain. As soon as she reached the mountain, her seizure stopped.

There at the mountain she stayed for 7 (or 10 or 12 or 14, I forgot which number is auspicious according to the Chinese tradition) years. One day her master told her that she needed to leave. She asked why, as she was happy living in the simple Taoist temple, sweeping floors and practicing kung fu. But her master was adamant – she still had mission to fulfill in the world.

She refused and refused. One morning out collecting firewood, she fell. Surprisingly, instead of falling into the ground, she fell through clouds and fogs and forests until she hit the foot of the mountain. She wanted to climb back up to her temple. Every time she tries to go up, however, her legs would go weak. At that point she realized that her master’s power was preventing her from going back. She had to go back to the world.

She cried, while telling me that story in Lynn’s kitchen. “I kow-towed to the mountain and swore I would go back to serve my master after finishing my duties.” She said while wiping tears off.

She found out later that she was destined to cure the world of sufferings and sicknesses before she could go back to her own enlightenment (a very Buddhist mission for a Taoist disciple. Oh well). That was after another divine revelation story which I don’t remember now. In the past few years, she and her husband had been working on helping the confused and the sick “see” their hang-ups, and if evil spirits were involved, expelling the spirits.

Lynn’s domestic helper, a honest and humble man from the countryside, interjected earnestly, “Oh master, I would like to seek your wisdom on something. For many different occasions I saw the places in my dreams before I visited them for the first time. What does that mean?”

The master said – you have the seed of supernatural power; have you been practicing Qi Gong to cultivate it?

More and more people stayed in the kitchen to listen to her story by now. One Chinese guy, a business manager, asked her to test his Qi. She shook his hand, then mine, and she told him, “Your Qi is very strong compared to his.” She pointed at me. Duh, I thought – I had been told many times that my handshake is weak.

“Can you read my future from my handshake?” The Chinese guy inquired. Mrs. Liang had claimed powerful Qi Gong masters could tell the past and the future from a person’s Qi, and the Chinese guy was debating whether to pursue a new career. Mrs. Liang closed her eyes for a beat. When she reopened them she shook her head, “It’s too noisy here. Come to my house some other day and I’ll do a special session for you.”

My jaws were dropped half of the time during her storytelling. I couldn’t make up my mind whether I was watching a true master or a supreme actor. Either way, I asked how she could help improve my parents’ health, especially my dad’s diabetes, which was pretty much the only reason I could still suspend my disbelief.

“Come to my house next week.” She said. “I can give you one of the special cards I’m preparing. I gave a card to a friend’s father after my friend begged me for many times. The next day the diabetes of my friend’s father went away! In fact,” she paused to let several others leave the kitchen before continuing, “I’m working on a cure for the bird flu. Once I put the cure on the card, through Qi, nobody needs to worry about the bird flu if they have a card from me.”

I left the party without being able to form an opinion on the Qi Gong masters, because there were two prominent political dissidents and several journalists at the party, because I respected my friend Lynn’s experience and instinct as a seasoned reporter. A well-educated American was asking Mr. Liang if she could learn Qi Gong from him. Surely in such level-headed companies…

Today during lunch time, I bumped into Lynn’s Chinese Assistant Xiao Liu. We chatted for a while, about stuff.

“Do you remember the Qi Gong masters at the Christmas party?” She asked casually.

“Sure, Mr. and Mrs. Liang, right? They were certainly… something.” I chose my words carefully. “Did you know that they are working on a cure for that bird flu?”

“Oh that, the card. It’s like a phone card with a smart-card chip. They gave me one for the headache I had that night. Didn’t do a thing.” The memory brought a disdainful look to Xiao Liu’s face. “They kept on asking if I was feeling better so I had to tell them, yeah a little bit.”

“Lynn trusted them…” I hesitated at how to proceed with the conversation.

“I told Lynn from the beginning that they were frauds. She refused to believe me.” Xiao Liu ignored my dancing around words. “I have a friend who works for many expats here as a translator. Mr. Liang met her at the party and called her repeatedly afterwards. He wanted to use her contacts to sell their magic cards. At RMB 500-600 (US$63-75) a pop! My friend didn’t want to do it. So a couple of the days ago he called my friend again and said, ‘why don’t we work together to make some money? We are only trying to fool the laowais (foreigners).’ ”

Alas, why did I distrust my instincts in the name of respecting my cultural heritage and upholding political correctness?

“I just don’t get the laowais.” Xiao Liu continued, “Why are they so eager to believe?”

Indeed, why are they? Don’t they realize that most verbal expressions and human interactions could and may hide some less pretty motives in this vast country on a binge of wealth making, especially after “five thousand” years of history, after the Confucian teachings suppressed genuine human feeling to fit strict social norms, and after the numerous political movements in the communist China in which the truth-speaking got squashed?

I pondered for a beat and wondered out aloud. “I think this might indicate a cultural difference (everything is cultural, n’est pas?). In the West, it’s innocent until proven guilty. Here in China, it’s guilty until proven innocent.”

Come to think of it, politically correct or not, it’s really not a bad attitude to have in order to survive in China.