Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Naming of Names

My expat friends and I often have a gentle laugh about the kinds of English names chosen by our students. Although many Chinese will choose normal sorts of names, and some will choose beautiful and unusual names, many more choose whimsical names that could make even a hippy envious. Sometimes, of course, the fault lies entirely with the interesting sense of humor that English teachers have. Names which would never have survived the 'oh, but what will the other kids twist that into' test--back in the States--are given room to flourish in a country where most will not understand all the implications.

There is no harm in it, usually, college students or even young kids are not burdened by names like Zeus, Toxic, or even Skeletor. What surprises me more are the hardened professionals who seem to have held on to their English nicknames and now use them in a corporate setting. The representative of a major international hotel chain whose chosen English name is "Only", for example, or a CEO of a minor corporation quoted in a news story I read a while back whose name was "Eagle". I suppose their international peers are too polite to say anything, and among their Chinese peers the English name matters not.

But I don't mean to suggest that the silliness with names is only a Chinese peccadillo. When choosing Chinese names, the expats and exchange students often choose purposefully silly or evocative names. One Canadian who has lived in China for more than a decade and a half, and has become a household name here, is simply called Da Shan, or 'Big Mountain'. The simple name hasn't hurt him professionally it seems, as he has his own TV show on the English language channel and stares at me from the sides of milk boxes among other things. Other famous foreigners have taken names based on dragons, and other large, ferocious, or intimidatingly masculine symbols. A favorite name is "handsome".

They could, of course, just stick to the phonetic rendering of their names in Chinese, but that would just be boring, would it?

As for myself, I chose a Chinese name purposefully that had a poetic assonance to it, as well as containing only characters related to nature: Bai (the cypress tree), Hai (the sea), and Feng (the mountain peak). This too is a whimsical name to choose, I suppose, as I am surrounded by little but smog, traffic jams, and epic skyscrapers.

An Investor's Guide to China

Which could alternatively be titled: "Ways to Throw Money Away Quickly".

This is not to say that there aren't ways to profit off the massive economic boom that is today's China. Export is popular specifically because no matter how much the government and crooked business partners rob you blind in China, the real money is being made outside of China where they can't get their hands on it. Import, conversely, is a game only to be played by multinationals strong enough to exert their own force of gravity and create brand awareness through product placement in all those billions of pirated DVDs.

Most of the ways to profit have already been monopolized by the Chinese government, their favorite business pals, the triads, or brand-name multinationals. Of these, it is hard to say which is most crooked and anti-competitive, but they all seem to know exactly how to get filthy rich off the liberalization of a once-dormant economy.

But what, you may ask, of the well known entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese? Is this shopworn stereotype of no use? Are there not small businesses by the billions to prove that the little guys can get their share of the big red pie?

There are indeed. But from my experience of business in China, I would have to wonder if even half of the mom and pop shops break even. Given the distortion of the exchange rate, one imagines that only an infinitesimal number of startups here can eventually make a decent profit. Shops are constantly going out of business and being replaced by yet more foolish hopefuls. Many are simply fronts for laundering the dirty money of civil servants and gangsters. The landlords and civil servant extortionists are the only ones laughing their way to the bank on any given day. If you want to set up shop in China and have the audacity to hope for a profit, you'd better come with a multi-national brand name and/or serious government connections. Simply put, you're better off gambling your life savings in a game of mahjong than attempting a start-up.

Take the example of a restaurant I know of. The local fire department came by and insisted that they had to buy a massive machine with various bells and whistles. The owner considered, where would he even put such a thing, a thing not even required in the most safety-conscious districts of the developed world? Why would they make him pay through the nose for a machine that was needless and a waste of space? It turns out there is only one company that makes this machine, and guess which government department has connections to it?

With the English school I've worked for over the last year, the requirements and chances for bribery (hong bao) are somewhat subtler than this, but no less existent. We too had to take the fire department bigwigs out for dinner and liquor, slipping them the money they asked for. We too find that our little school has not, is not, and probably will never make money. A completely wasted investment. Meanwhile, all the BMW-driving local government workers as well as the landlord whose decrepit, dirty, smelly building we rent from (and can never be located when a problem occurs) are laughing their way to the bank.

The lesson of China is simple: if someplace looks like a get-rich-quick bonanza, you can bet that it's really nothing more than a big money pit. The winners are all selected, here, and all the other punters are just being taken for a ride.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sharks and Bullets

Perhaps I've mentioned this before, but the matter bears repeated mention:

The Chinese have no clue why Americans love guns so much.

In fact, most of my students seem to think that the US is just as dangerous as Africa, if they are to go by the news they read about both regions. Now while the more thoughtful among us might take this as a good reason to reconsider our prejudices about the dangers of Africa, others might wish to leap to the bedraggled pride of our country. Even I find myself countering with such gems as: "It's usually the poor people who kill each other." (The rest of the country only gets concerned when the bullets start flying in a leafy, white-bread suburban school--Columbine--or at a leafy, white-bread college--Virginia Tech. ) Or how about, "Just stay out of Detroit and South-Central LA". Granted, Chinese tourists probably should stay out of these places anyway. Aside from the extreme lack of chintzy tourist traps for their buses to trundle to, the Chinese have a word they often say which sounds a lot like another, very bad, word which could get them in a lot of trouble there. Ne ge (pronounced: neh guh) means "that", and my Chinese friends in college liked to point out the windows of the car and say this word an awful lot as they drove through poor and largely black neighborhoods in southeast Michigan. I cowered in the back seat.

I showed Cherry "Bowling for Columbine" the other evening, in an attempt to give (at least the liberal interpretation of) American reasoning about the guns and violence to be found in America. I've been wanting to show this to my students for some time. Besides raising a number of important points about the use of fear as a political motivator, the movie is entertaining and catches both the Bush crew and various captains of industry in their worst light.

In the end, I think I mainly convinced Cherry that Michigan begets many of homicidal monsters and that we should move to Canada. If she thinks that now, I probably shouldn't even mention the premise behind Moore's newest film, 'Sicko', which also has me considering a permanent state of expatriation.

And what is my conclusion regarding gun violence and other ills of society? That we are merely reaping the reward of an arrogance which presumes we can have the whole world's cake and eat it too. Short of doping the entire human population of this planet on soma, there is no lasting peace to be had on earth. Short of eradicating everyone who is different from yourself, there is no harmony to be had either. And yet we always assume that this is our due. Strange. Anything that deprives us of personal passion and struggle is sure to provoke an equal and opposite reaction... of passionate struggle.

In that light, these things we struggle with and fear--obesity, distant terrorism, and $4 a gallon of oil--are all small prices to pay for the degree of ease and luxury with which Americans flit about their lives. As for gun violence, perhaps this is the price we pay to live our clean, safeguarded lives in sanitized suburban ghettos. This is the id expressing itself, after a long suppression. The oft-feared "causes" of violence--the savage drum beat reincarnated in heavy metal, virtual-world bloodbaths, unsanitary heroes of stage and screen--are just lesser vents for something that always slouched through the shadows of our minds, despite our best attempts at conveniently forgetting the truth of what we are. As communist idealists have taught us through the failure of their ideology, there is no escaping from human nature. Even the least of us--with the most to gain--will ultimately rebel against the leveling of playing fields, the mowing over of greener grasses. We need a darker place behind us, to keep us moving forward; we need a brighter star ahead, lest striving become languor.

It is not bullets, but human nature, that spews from the mouth of a gun. Even the castrated suburbs will sometimes find such a voice with which to break out of a fallow peace.

In any case, if life in China has taught me nothing else, it is this: we are all far more likely to die of cancers brought by man-made filth than by sudden violence. It is the unexpected nature of violent tragedy that fascinates us and frightens us, not the statistical actuality. No, neither sharks nor bullets shall get the majority of us; more is the pity, because at least sharks and bullets do their work quickly and efficiently.

Countdown to Launch

I'm in the midst of planning a launch party for the Chongqing Grooves magazine. Do I know how to launch a party? I'm discovering how it's done.

Thankfully, the Singaporean owners of the local Singaporean restaurant (our venue for next Sunday) have been extremely helpful. They have much more experience in such matters than I.

After all, some ten years ago I was but a shy boy surrounded by half-veiled zealotry. Now I will be making speeches, handing out prizes, perhaps overseeing (but not partaking of) a few drinking game competitions, and generally pulling everything together.

I'm canvassing the town: from the ivory English-school towers to the grubbiest backpacker haunts, through the leafy universities to the hippest new restaurants and cafes. Meanwhile, I've sent Cherry to go down the peninsula to the famed Chaotianmen market. She can haggle up some good decorations for us.

And in the end I'm just left to worry whether fifty people will show up or two hundred will show up. Either way could present some difficulties.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Chongqing Grooves - Softcopy

Recently I was offered a position as managing editor of a nascent bi-lingual magazine located here in Chongqing, China. I wrote several articles and a restaurant review as well as providing many photographs for the inaugural issue. Please feel free to download the soft-copy of the magazine in E-Book form from this URL:

I must admit, I am extremely excited about the resulting product, and proud of my contribution to it. I hope you like this as well.