Tuesday, January 20, 2009


First, a brief apology to Moonrat and other BookBook contributors for slacking rather over the past four or five months. I think it's now over two months since I posted on here at all - very remiss of me! Back at the start of October, a building site appeared outside my window. Consequently, I have found it very hard to get enough sleep, or to enjoy any 'quiet' activities - such as reading - in my apartment since then. And I have been ridiculously busy during this period, too. I have not abandoned reading altogether, but I have perhaps spread myself rather too thin, dipping into several books at once but not giving myself wholeheartedly and purposefully to any one of them (and they have not been the kind of books I would generally review on here: a couple of short story anthologies, some poetry, a poetry-writing primer...). Because of all this, I'm afraid I rather lost momentum on my 'main read', a worthy but rather overlong Chinese novel which I had planned to be my next review on here.

Anyway, to get back into the BookBook habit, I thought I'd offer a few comments on this frivolous little book which I bought myself as a Christmas present this year. (Published by the Liaoning Education Press, it's probably not widely available outside of China - but you're really not missing all that much.)

Yi Shen Ellis is an American Chinese who moved to Shanghai with her American husband Bryan a few years ago, and has been raising her two young children there. Bryan gets a co-author credit for contributing a few reminiscences of his experiences of working in China and agreeing to be the butt of a few jokes, but it would seem that Yi Shen did all the writing. It's a simple collection of short anecdotes illustrating various aspects of Chinese culture that Westerners tend to find curious or confusing when they first come here.

Most of the stories cover more than one item of culture, so you end up with some hundreds of nuggets of information - and I confess that there were just a few of them that were still new to me. However, it is on the whole very basic stuff, and you wonder whether the chosen number of chapters wasn't intended to be significant: this is very much 'Chinese Culture - 101', the kind of thing that keen observers would mostly pick up within a few months of living here, or even from conversations with Chinese friends back home. Nevertheless, it does cover more of these topics in a short space than any other book I've found, and it's a brief and very accessible read - not more than an hour or two from cover to cover. It might be a useful primer for people contemplating a move to China, or for recent arrivals here. For the established expat, I'm afraid, it's a bit of a yawn.

Well, there are two talking points that emerge, I find, for us grizzled China veterans.

One is the language. I would imagine that Yi Shen - Chinese-born, but having lived most of her life in the States - would have faultless native speaker English, but there are many curious hints of 'Chinglish' in this book (conspicuously in the title itself: that clunking use of the not-terribly-polite label 'foreigners'; the adjectival clause hanging awkwardly on a purposive 'for' rather than a more natural 'to help'). Is it the uniquely powerful 'first language interference' of Mandarin overwhelming even 20 years or more of English language immersion? Is it just sloppy editing? Or is it wilfully bad or politically motivated editing, to give the book a more acceptably 'Chinese' flavour?

A second, related point of interest is the degree of propagandizing behind this. Nothing gets published in China without an agenda, and this book is huffing and puffing just a bit too obviously to try to understand, defend, and even extol some of the weirder, less attractive, or less useful aspects of Chinese culture. Yi Shen tells us, for example, she's had some very good experiences with Chinese herbalists; and even the prevalent superstition that you'll die if you don't wear socks all the time she claims to find not without merit.

Occasionally these attempts to be 'culturally understanding' become so absurd that you wonder if she isn't slyly sending up the book's conceit. Intimate public touching between members of the same sex, she tells us, should never be taken as evidence of homosexuality, and, on the contrary, tends to be practised "especially by the most manly men". Yeah, right. We're not just talking about a slap on the back or an arm around the shoulder here; we're talking about protracted stroking.... of cheeks.... necks.... butts.... thighs.... groins. And it is - sometimes - very sexual indeed! She also puts forward the suggestion that Chinese noisiness while eating is a reasonable response to the hotness of their soup, which is so much hotter than Western soups, and perhaps makes a telling parallel with the way Westerners slurp coffee. Where do I start? I very seldom hear Westerners, or anyone else, slurp coffee; we cool it by blowing on it first, and drink it cautiously in small sips; we don't hoover it down in great mouthfuls, the way the Chinese consume most of their foods. Chinese soups are not served "piping hot", as Yi Shen says; they're usually little more than lukewarm; and they're certainly not consumed hot, because they're usually much thinner than Western soups and thus don't hold their heat for any length of time at all; most Western soups are much hotter. And funnily enough, soups tend to be the one thing that, in my experience, the Chinese don't eat particularly noisily; almost every other kind of food they make a tremendous open-mouthed din over, but soups....

Yes, I really wonder whether this last example was made so deliberately fatuous as to send up the entire project.


moonrat said...

interesting review.

you need never apologize to me re: not reading or blogging, especially considering my recent behavior. but i accept ;)

i do know that you're a hard sell on all things China, or at least a harder sell than people who haven't lived in China. i'm rather surprised you even bought this one! i will look it up despite/because of your nuanced review.

and yes, we eagerly await the Ma Jian.

Jeremiah said...

At the risk of getting too philosophical...

"you'll die if you don't wear socks all the time"

Is sort of self-evident, no? To paraphrase a wiser head than mine, "Socks or no socks, in the end are we all not just food for worms?"

Froog said...

Our Chinese friends don't seem to allow for the contrary position, though, J. If you try telling them that they'll die even if they do wear socks all the time, they will be shocked and disbelieving.

Of course, it's rapid, premature death rather than eventual, distant death that they're mostly preoccupied with.

I am walking around barefoot on my icy-cold tiled floor this morning, and loving the stimulating sensation. Been nice knowing you.