China Bans Halloween and Steals My Ties

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blog china bans halloweenIt’s been a hectic week here at Topiclessbar, as the Chinese government has stepped in twice recently, prohibiting me from taking public transport in a Halloween costume and from wearing a nice stylish tie. That’s how China rolls sometimes. While other, more intelligent writers can document the massive, sweeping oppressions of the Chinese government over its people, I shall instead document two instances of relatively minor oppression that are more odd than infuriating.

Let’s start with the ties.

When shopping for ties in Beijing, one basically has two options. Either you can pay a ridiculously high price at a department store, or you can go to a black market and haggle. Now, personally, I absolutely hate haggling, so that’s out of the question. I’m just very uncomfortable with it. Even when I do successfully get the price I want, I still somehow feel as though I’ve been ripped off. Anyways, I needed ties and the two methods I just mentioned seemed unappealing. So I ordered ties online, which I thought would be an easy alternative.

Yeah, not so much.

Thanks to UPS tracking, I’ve learned that my shipment of five ties and two pocket squares has been detained at customs. Why? Well, perhaps China has something against pocket squares that aren’t pre-sewn into the suit. Or, more likely, they just want to milk more money out of me and my imported ties, as there’s a message on the UPS thing about how I need to pay some sort of fee to get my ties out of detention. My ties have been held hostage in a warehouse for almost two weeks now. Whether or not I ever set them free is anyone’s guess. In the meantime, I’ll stick to sweaters.

Now on to Halloween.

For years, the Beijing expat community has famously held its “Halloween Subway Party” on Line 2 of the Beijing subway. The idea is fun and simple: people dress in costumes and meet up on one particular subway platform, and then they sort of take over the subway car and have a costume party while riding the public transportation system. Line 2 is a loop, and eventually everyone gets off and the party continues. This has become something of its own tradition and there have never been any incidents of lawbreaking or disorderly conduct. But Halloween costumes are frightening, and so obviously the government had to step in and put the kibosh on the whole thing.

Here is the (somewhat confusing) statement that was released Friday prior to the subway party:

“Beijing transit police crew, tonight is Halloween to western traditional festivals. In order to avoid panic caused by subway, Beijing Subway will ban the costume or terrorist makeup in the passenger station. {People who} refuse to correct and thereby causing serious consequence may be detained.”

The news of the Halloween costume ban spread quickly. I’m not sure if anyone tried to get on the subway anyways, but I decided to stay away, as going to jail for dressing like Luigi from Mario Bros wasn’t how I wanted to spend my Friday night. I didn’t hear any stories of mass arrests the next day, although I did find this amusing photograph posted on We Chat. It’s a guy in a panda outfit getting taken away by a police man.

blog panda

Why ban Halloween costumes, you ask? Who knows? Because they have the power to, I guess. And, you know, who wants any kind of chaos on the Beijing subway? Cause usually it’s pretty low key and orderly.

blog chaos on subway

Okay, that’s all for now. The two lessons to take away from this blog post are as follows:

  1. It’s hard to buy ties in China, so just wear your D.A.R.E. or your Coed Naked Golf t-shirt to work.
  1. Halloween costumes (especially pandas) are scary and synonymous with terrorist activities. Be on the lookout for Isis members at your local costume or party store.

Hope everybody had a great holiday! See ya!

(Credit to Beijing comic Frank Monday for making the panda meme)

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The Chopstick Delusion

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blog chopsticks miageLiving in China, there are certain things one hears over and over again. A short list of commonly accepted phrases would include:

“Do you like Chinese food?” – this is usually asked by someone when you are enjoying a large plate of Chinese food, or if you’re speaking to a Chinese person and neither of you has anything interesting to say.

“Wow! You look just like _____” – insert actor or actress you look nothing like.

“Oh, you are very good with chopsticks!” – a compliment every foreigner receives at some point and, in a way, a right of passage.

Yes, today’s topic is that common compliment, the one about chopsticks, and what it means. On the surface, it’s sort of goofy and perplexing. I mean, chopsticks really aren’t that hard to use. Why wouldn’t I be good with chopsticks? What kind of god-awful motor skills do you think I have? Like, because I’m American, I’m only capable of stabbing things with a fork?

It’s also a bit awkward because it draws a clear distinction between whoever says it and the foreigner receiving the compliment. It would be sort of like if I walked into a McDonald’s in America and saw an Asian guy eating a hamburger and totally freaked out about it.

blog hamburger head“Holy crap! Do you see what’s happening here? He’s Asian and he’s eating a hamburger! A hamburger! I thought he’d be eating rice or something, but nope! It’s a Big Mac! This guy is wild!”

Perhaps a little overboard, but the chopsticks compliment is in essence divisive. Trust me, I’m aware that I’m very other. We don’t need to point it out yet again. It’s only slightly better than when I say some basic thing in broken Mandarin and am given the thumbs up for it.

blog chopsticksBut all that is minor. The truth is, the annoying aspects of the chopstick compliment are nothing when compared to the importance of it. It’s an acknowledgement, a sign of approval. I believe it signals that I have arrived. That despite my awful Mandarin and the fact that none of the shirts here fit me, I have mastered something that helps me fit in here in China at least a little bit. Chopsticks. I may never be fully accepted as a part of this society, but at least I can pick up a noodle.

Chopsticks have been on my mind a lot lately, ever since the new semester at my school began. See, in the past, the school cafeteria only had chopsticks, and every teacher used them whether they were adept at it or not. This year, however, a tray of forks and spoons suddenly appeared. I was aghast. It was a kind gesture, I suppose, to supply the new foreign teachers with the cutlery of their homeland. Yet, at the same time, it saddened me, especially when I noticed the new teachers were largely opting for the fork and spoon instead of the chopsticks.

blog chopsticks with fork“I can’t use chopsticks,” some of them would say. And that made sense. If you can’t use chopsticks, that could lead to a messy lunch. Although at one point in time I was new, and I sort of got initiated into chopsticks by fire, and I guess I think everyone should kind of do that. In my mind, I tried to imagine being a foreigner living in Asia and never getting the chopstick compliment. It would be like, I suppose, moving to America and living there for decades without ever getting the finger.

You just really couldn’t call it home, I don’t think.

Which brings us to The Chopstick Delusion. This is the idea that forms in the mind of a western person living in Asia that, due to competence in a few areas of daily life, they have been assimilated into the culture that surrounds them to at least some degree. I can use chopsticks. I can order food in a restaurant. I am able to read some signs. I know how to count. Therefore I am not an outsider but someone that belongs here. I can one day feel at home in this country.

And that might be true – if the person continues to work at it. To learn the language, understand the customs, count past ten. But what I see a lot – especially with myself – is that once those basic things are conquered, The Chopstick Delusion sets in and you think you’ve got it made. Why am I judgmental against the new teachers who insist on sticking with the fork? Because I feel they won’t be deserving of their delusion, I think. By giving up the fork, I’ve made a choice to go with the flow, to do like the Romans. And it annoys me to think that the fork people will eventually have Chopstick Delusions of their own without ever having mastered chopsticks. The same way, I guess, people who have learned to speak Mandarin view me.

Because that’s probably how it works. The hierarchy of expat adaptation. For every foreigner who can’t speak the language, I’m sure there’s some other foreign shaking his head, just like the chopstick crowd scoffs at the fork people, and I suppose the fork people, eating their rice and their kung pao chicken, might feel a tad superior to the foreigners sitting in KFC eating fried chicken with their fingers.

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You’re Stunning, Mr. Cabbie! No…I Mean It…You’re Literally Stunning Me!

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blog donkey in cabLiving in China can be bizarre. In the three years that I lived in South Korea, I thought that I existed in some strange parallel universe that only vaguely connected to the rest of the world. Silly me. Compared to China, South Korea feels like one of the quirkier states in the US, like how I imagine Portland or Louisiana being. Weird but with a certain degree of charm. China, while absolutely possessing charms of its own, is not really like that.

That’s because China has an overall ambience of lawlessness and disorder that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. Everyone knows that China is a “communist” country. I knew that. But it turned out, when I got here, that communist countries aren’t all how I imagined them being. For starters, there’s not much in terms of propaganda in China. I’ve been here over a year, and I still wouldn’t be able to tell the president apart from some guy working in a corner store. There are no huge pictures of the blog kim jong unpresident plastered across buildings the way North Korea dresses the country up in Kim Jong Un. Likewise, there’s no sense that people are ‘sharing the wealth’ here, not the way my high school history teacher taught me communist countries are supposed to. No, just like in America, a few people here appear to be really rich, and everyone else is broke as hell.

Especially cabbies. Or, in reality, older guys with cars. Because that’s what most cabbies are. You see, China is so extremely deregulated, almost anyone can do whatever job they want to do. Have no training but you own a pair of scissors? Great! You are now a hair dresser. Want to run a restaurant but you’re worried about inspections and getting a good sanitation score? Don’t sweat it! As long as you don’t kill anyone, nobody is going to bother stepping foot in your kitchen. And even if you do kill someone, just stop serving whatever dish they ordered and I’m sure things will work out fine.

By the same token, owning a car is all you really need to do in order to become a cabbie. Yes, there are real cabs here that have meters and a thing on the roof that says ‘taxi,’ but they’re vastly outnumbered by what are generally referred to as ‘black cabs.’ Getting a black cab is easy and can result in a truly exciting experience. Instead of generalizing, I will instead illustrate this with a quick story:

It was about three in the morning, and I was ready to go back to the hotel. My friends were still out, drinking and partying in Sanlitun. But I was tired. So I made my way to the street and hailed down a cab. I knew right away that it wasn’t a legal cab. I did not care. After some confusion regarding where I needed to go (don’t expect an illegal cab to have things like translation or a GPS), the cabbie put the car in drive and we hit the road.

blog cab gullable touristAbout ten minutes later, we were at my hotel. Thinking back, I knew I should’ve bargained the price before we set out. I hadn’t done that because I wasn’t in the mood and also because I didn’t have a good idea of how far away the hotel was. Anyways, now that we had reached the destination, I turned to the cabbie and asked him how much he wanted for the ride.

“100!” he loudly stated.

I almost burst out in laughter.

“100 RMB for a ten minute cab ride? That’s insane! I’ll give you 20.”

This did not please him. The cabbie was probably in his sixties, an old man with thin arms and a bald head. He gave me the look of death and shouted out his next price.

“50!”

“Now way, man!” I said. “25.”

We argued a little more and then, although he spoke only in Chinese, I could tell that he was threatening to turn around and bring me back to Sanlitun.

“Fine, bring me back,” I said. “I’m not paying 50.”

He yelled in Chinese and started turning the car around. Then he stopped and began negotiating again.

“This is stupid,” I said, and I turned and tried to open the door. It was locked. I moved my hand to the lock and pulled it up.

blog stun gunYou’re right. Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to leave the cab. My bad. The next thing I knew, his bony little fingers were yanking at my collar. I turned to see him reach under his car seat, remove a stun gun, and proceed to stick it in my face.

“What the hell, man?” I said. “Are you serious?”

He was so elderly. I figured I could’ve easily taken his wrist and snapped it in half, then beaten him with his own hand. But I’m a nice guy. I instead offered another price.

“35. Okay?”

“Okay!”

He still had the stupid stun gun in my face.

“Dude, I’m not paying you shit until you put that thing away! Put it away!”

The cabbie returned the stun gun to its spot under the seat, I paid him the 35, and he let me go. I went to my hotel room and found that my friends had somehow gotten there first.

So what’s the point of all this? That illegal cabs are bad? That China is crazy and unsafe? Nope, that’s not it at all.

The point is simply to say that people who are firmly against government regulation of the business world might not understand exactly what they’re getting themselves into. Deregulation is fine in theory, and even in practice, actually. As long as you don’t mind fighting with cabbies from time to time.

Or getting bad haircuts.

Or being served fake tequila in bars.

Or having a restaurant cook your food with reused oil.

Or having the air so thick with pollution you can barely breathe.

Just think about it. As shady as the beef at Taco Bell is, it could be shadier.

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