走马看花 (zou3 ma3 kan4 hua1) was the first chengyu I ever learned. It was Chinese New Year 2012 and my boss took me to his hometown and we traveled around the province going sightseeing and drinking bai jiu. Of course, we did A LOT of sightseeing (and drank A LOT of bai jiu). In China, part of the prevailing tourism ethos is to try and see as much as you can in as little time as possible. It's also to drink as much bai jiu as you can in as little time as possible. However, when it comes to bai jiu, that's also just ingrained in the ethos of the broad institution of Chinese culture itself. But I digress...
In one of our briefer stints in an ancient town that looks like every single other ancient town in China, my boss turned to me and said 我们走马看花。It took a minute for him to gesticulate the meaning of each character because his English was only marginally better than my Chinese at the time, but once I got the meaning of all of the characters it clicked immediately. 走马看花 literally means galloping on a horse looking at flowers, or, gain a shallow understanding from a fleeting glance.
万事大吉， directly translated as 10,000 things prosperous is a chengyu with more utility in everyday life than most others. It basically means that everything is great, or 'A-OK' as my textbook likes to say.
For example, you could say:
"Just because you passed your interview don't think 万事大吉, the boss can still fire your ass."
This one is going to be a bit of a longer post than more chengyu posts. I went to the Yunnan Prefecture last week with a few other students from my language program during a week long break that we all just had. I am shamelessly stealing the photos in this post from one of the other people on the trip named Luke. Because of facebook privacy settings I can't share his fb posts directly with everyone so I downloaded them and am now posting them here. Luke also had a real camera while everyone else had cell phone cameras.
Also, for reference, here's where Yunnan is:
We started our trip in Kunming (also called the city of eternal spring), which is a city I've wanted to visit for a while. It was a much more peaceful city than Beijing and the general atmosphere is more content than tense like in BJ. In Beijing it's hard to not be swept up in the tide of fast paced life. However in Kunming there's the opposite problem - it's so relaxed and things are so cheap (nice apartments for $100-$150 per month) that it's easy to get lost in that slow moving, pressure free environment.
The above picture is of a huge Lake in Kunming which was probably my favorite place in the city. There were trees, plants, and grass everywhere. There were blankets and picnics everywhere. Lots of kids and real dogs (meaning the dogs are big enough where you couldn't accidentally step on and kill them) as well. There were also tents and air mattresses which was a pretty good idea if you're going to lounge around at the beach all day. All they needed was some grills and bbq and it would have been just like America!
In Kunming we also had the opportunity to eat some delicious food. I had what was perhaps my favorite meal in all of China while there. It was a Yunnan style restaurant, but more specifically a specialty restaurant of one of the Yunnan minorities. There was nearly no oil, fresh herbs and meat, the sauces were amazing and they might have had the best meatballs I've ever had. Rather than drowning everything is thick, oily sauces as is customary in Beijing, you could tell that the food was actually carefully combined with different spices to try and bring out all different types of tastes. I will try and find out if these types of restaurants exist in Beijing.
After Kunming we took an overnight train to LiJiang (a city in Northern Yunnan near our next destination). When we got off the train is was about 6am and still dark out. We haggled with a van driver for a while and eventually the 6 of us set off for Tiger Leaping Gorge. Tiger Leaping Gorge has been the number one place I've wanted to visit in China for a long time so I was very excited to be going. After a couple hours we found ourselves at the beginning of our hike. The hike was really beautiful and the inns we stayed at were amazing. We had some guys with donkeys follow us so that when we got tired we could pay them some money and ride the donkeys up.
Some people did opt to use the donkeys not to ride but instead to carry their backpacks up so they were free to walk without any extra burden. The hike starts at about 6,000 feet and at the top it gets up to about 8,800 feet, so the air is pretty thin and makes the hike more challenging. It was a beautiful hike. Here are some pictures of the first day of our hike -
We stayed at these really nice inns that had picturesque views of the gorge. The food there was great and things were actually quite cheap considering the inns could charge whatever they wanted and you'd still have to buy as you literally have no alternatives. At night, I saw more stars than I can remember ever seeing in life. The Milky Way was visible in strange blotches across the sky that didn't exactly have a color except a lighter darkness but still very definitely identifiable as the Milky Way. I think everyone on the trip slept at least 10 hours each night while we were hiking as well.
After Tiger Leaping Gorge we we took a train to Dali. Dali was a very cool city. We stayed in the Old City, which is what people usually refer to when they refer to Dali, and had a great time. The old city was a mixture of tacky wannabe old architecture built in the past twenty years, actually old buildings and places, tourist traps and authentic culture. There was a lot to see the first day so we all just walked around a lot, I got a hair cut, and we ate some good food although I can't remember what it was.
The second day we took a long bike ride around a lake near Dali. I saw a tandem bike and immediately decided to ride it. My friend Steven was kind enough to ride it with me. We all also got fish pedicures where the fish eat the dead skin off your feet. It was extremely ticklish.
From Dali we took a train back to Kunming and flew back to Beijing. Overall is was a much needed respite from the Beijing grind. I might write more about it later but I'm tired now and need to take a nap and then study Chinese. Ta ta.
天高皇帝远 is literally translated as tall sky emperor far. Now, although this isn't a chengyu exactly (to be honest I'm not exactly sure how to distinguish them), it is a story written in five chThis one is pretty self explanatory: you can get away with a lot when law enforcement isn't around. It also explains a lot about why things work the way they do here.
This chengyu means to expose ones talent, to come the fore. For example, "in a basketball game he really 'a sharp stick points out.'"
This chengyu, although not that remarkable in terms of weirdness and uniqueness, is one of the most used chengyus online. Apparently, it has something like over 50,000,000 hits on baidu (the Chinese version of google that everyone in China uses) and over 30,000,000 hits on google itself.
The above title is a more or less direct translation of a fairly widely used (I think) chengyu. In Chinese it's written as 杀鸡给猴看. The meaning is to scare those who would consider engaging in foul behavior by punishing someone else to an extreme degree. For example, the government has started to crack down on rumor weibo accounts (the Chinese twitter), jailing people who make up wild accusations and rumors to gain popularity. One story recently made the news when a couple of guys who started a rumor mill weibo account received a sentence of several years in jail Slippery slope? Maybe. No tabloids? Definitely. Better society? debatable...
Maybe I'll start posting a new chengyu every week. That wayI'll start posting on here regularly even though I may have nothing new to report. Also, it will help spur me to learn a new chengyu every week, which isn't a bad thing.
That's all for now. Here's a picture of me studiously reading a (big) book of Chinese medicine. Ta ta.
I didn't write this, but to this day it is still the best description I've come across when trying to explain China to people. Enjoy.
"Because China" is the only way to put it.
Last week I was in an elevator at 3pm with some nice people, patiently going downwards, stopping at every other floor for no reason because when most people in Guiyang want to call an elevator they hit both up and down regardless of which way they want to go (because China). Then the elevator suddenly dropped a foot or so (felt like way farther, but couldn't have been more than that), then shot to the 26th floor, then shot down to floor 1. We exited, confused and frightened, and a nice repairman explained that he assumed it was empty and was just about to do some repairs. Why would he assume that? Because China.
I went to a Pizza Hut with some friends a few days ago. (The Pizza Hut in Guiyang is one of the nicest restaurants in the city, partially because Chinese Pizza Huts are really nice places, and partially because Guiyang is a wasteland, which I say in an endearing way.) We ask if we can get a large pizza that's half one thing and half another. Nope, they don't do that. Okay, sure. We ordered a large pizza. Nope, they're out of large pizzas. Okay, that actually doesn't make any sense, but sure, we'll take a medium vegetable garden and a medium pepperoni, and a pitcher of pepsi. We can't give you a pizza with only pepperoni on it. Bullshit, yes, you can. Nope. Okay, whatever, not in the mood, give me the meat pizza. We get a small cup of pepsi and a medium pizza, half of which is vegetable garden and half of which is meat. I check the receipt. The receipt reflects what we ordered, both in English and Chinese. The waitress is at a loss to explain the theoretically impossible and utterly incorrect pizza. Why did they serve us that? Because China. (The previous time we went, we were served seven identical pizzas, having ordered three and paid for three, again because China.)
In the last month, I have been asked by different cab drivers, (1) how much whores are in America, (2) whether military service is compulsory in America, (3) if my parents are upset that I am 26 and unmarried, and (4) if I've got a big dick, or maybe if we (Americans) have big dicks, I'm not sure. But why do they think these are good questions to ask a guy who is trying to get to work? Because China.
A couple weeks ago, in the middle of the road I saw a twenty-five-foot-or-so ladder, being held upright by two men. It was unsupported by anything else. At the top was another man, working on a power line, with nothing to brace him, bolster him, or hold him but the ladder being held by two dudes. Cars were swerving all around them. Nobody found this exceptional. Because, again, China.
It's not a land in which the foreigner suffers. It is not a hostile land or a wild land. It is, rather, a land of pointless minor absurdities and wholly unnecessary inconveniences, which coalesce to infuriate the ill-tempered and delight the rest. When I first arrived, I was informed by a nice older gentleman, "FIRSTNAME, do not ever ask 'why' here. You can ask yourself any other question, and the answers will enlighten you. But do not ask 'why,' because here, there is no 'why.'" And he was right. The answer--the only answer--to "why" is "because China."
On my way to coaching one of my classes tonight I witnessed a bike crash. Actually, it was more of a car slamming into a bike. Before I go on, the man hit by the car was okay, but I didn't linger too long. I was about twenty meters behind the accident when it happened and I didn't even see the car hit the bike, I just heard the collision and looked up. I'm not sure if I actually saw the guy in the air or that's what my mind thinks it saw to put an action to the noise, but I certainly saw the guy on the ground. When he stood up, I saw that the man was in his 50s or 60s. He didn't seem all that angry, but that's normal in China. It might have to do directly with having face in public, but there might be other cultural factors at work that I don't know about.
Anyway, he stood up and stared down the car. Now, I kind of feel for the driver because the driver did have a green turn light and the crosswalk for the bicyclist light was clearly red. It was dark and the man on the bike was wearing dark clothing. But this is China so red lights really just mean slow down before continuing. Driving in this country must be exhausting. So the man stands up, stares down the car and starts saying something. But the way he said it, to me at least, did not suggest the degree of the accident. He spoke to the car as if he was explaining to it that it could not go down a one way road the wrong way. The driver got out of the car and kind of looked a little shocked. He was smiling a little but I think out of embarrassment more than anything else. I saw him point to the light and say that it was red but I didn't stay to see what happened because I had to get to class.
Class was going smoothly for a while until one of the water breaks. The biggest cause of disturbance in my classes are kids who fight over "their" basketball. All of the basketballs we use are provided by Show1 and are the exact same model and age, some are a little more scuffed than other but there's literally almost zero difference. During the water break I was playing keep away with a kid near the sideline when I looked over to the middle of the court and saw one of my assistant coaches restraining one of the Chinese kids from running and fighting another one. For the uninitiated, this may seem a little extreme, but that's how these durn younguns are these days in China. Or at least the younger ones that come to show1 class. Anyway, I saw the assistant coaching talking to the kid and the kid looking away and not really listening. This kid who I'll call Matt is notoriously one of the bigger trouble makers I've coached. He's one of the more untalented and uncoordinated kids in my class and doesn't like to listen at all. He's 9 years old. So, I see the assistant coach walk away from Matt, and this is my point of view for what I saw and what I said in my head next.
Matt walks towards a ball.
Me - 'please pick it up and go shoot.'
Matt picks up the ball and scans the floor.
Me - 'please be looking for a different ball.'
Matt hones in on the other kids who's looking the other way.
Me - 'uh oh'
Matt walks a few feet away from him, winds up and hurls the ball at the back of the kid's head.
What made this worse was the kid he threw the ball at is one of the nicer, quieter, and gentler students. There are other students who it would have made more sense to me if he had thrown the ball at, not that it would have been any better, but this really was just the icing on the cake. At this point I was already walking quickly over so it didn't take long for me to arrive. I grabbed Matt by his wrist and walked him over to the corner of the gym near where the parents were and told him to stay there.
I was a little bit conflicted because I wanted to lay into Matt a little bit because I thought it should be pretty obvious you don't go around throwing balls really hard at other kids' heads. But I realized I didn't know how to properly say what I wanted in Chinese and he wouldn't understand what I was saying in English, so I just told him to stay there. Eventually (I think his grandfather) came over to talk to him. I couldn't really tell what he was telling him or how because I had to coach the class. At one point one of the Show1 marketing guys (who is a really good guy and has had my back more than most people at Show1) came to talk to me to ask what happened. I told him and he went over to talk to Matt and his grandfather. Not soon after I heard Matt screaming and crying so I moved class to the other sideline to do drills away from the commotion. At the end of class, I always play a scrimmage game that the kids goes absolutely ape shit over. Of course, when I start this game, I can see the grandfather trying to usher Matt back toward the court. I'm a little shocked at first, and then I see the marketing guy look at me like, 'what should I do?' At this point the shock gave way to a little bit of frustrated anger that the grandfather would think it was okay for Matt to come back for the fun game at the end after what had happened, so I just put up my hand and shook my head.
After class was over the marketing guy came over to me and told me that when he had been trying to talk to Matt that Matt had cursed at him and called him a dog, which in Chinese has quite a worse meaning than it does in English. He told me that Matt's mother was coming and he wanted me to talk to her. She, like many of the parents of the kids at our camps, spoke pretty good English. She said that she was sorry, and then went on to explain that Matt is overly sensitive to what other kids say and do because he is not very good. I told her that I understood and explained that this isn't the first time a conflict involving Matt had occurred, it was only the most egregious one. That most of the problems that occur in the class had the common variable of Matt. She said she understood again and then spoke to Matt again. At this point the marketing man pulled me aside and asked me if Matt had apologized to me or the kid whose head he threw the ball at. I told him Matt hadn't. He then told me Matt hadn't apologized to him either.
Then it dawned on me, his mom (and probably the grandfather as well) viewed Matt as the victim. The way the mom explained that Matt sought out the other boy and blasted him in the back of the head while he wasn't looking, was in self defense. Matt never apologized for the incident, to me, to the marketing man who he called a dog, or to the other student. I didn't even bother trying to make him apologize to the other student when it happened because dealing with Matt and trying to make him see a mistake, listen, or do something when he doesn't want to do it, just doesn't work and it wastes time.
But as I sit here and write out what happened, I realized that I can't really blame Matt, he's just a kid. Kids are quite naive and I believe quite simply for the most part they are a product of parenting and their environment. If you teach a kid he can do whatever he wants, what do you think the results going to be when he gets really angry? Matt is this type of kid, a kid who, when he throws a ball as hard as he can at the back of another unsuspecting kid (who was also smaller than him) is coddled by his parents. He was probably told that it was wrong to do that, but I've found a lot of the time tone is more important than content when it comes to kids. If I had seen the mom talking to Matt out of context and was told what had occurred I would have thought Matt was the one who was hit by the ball. I was upset with Matt before class, but after I got home and thought about it, I wasn't angry at him because I believe most of the blame lies with his parents.
This isn't the first kid I've seen like this. He's the kind of kid who can do no wrong, who gets toweled off by his mother during water breaks and fed sweets after class. The kind of kid who is programmed to believe that he can do or have whatever he wants. Who won't listen to me or the assistant coaches. Who inflicts pain on other kids he's angry at and is treated like the victim. He is, very simply, a perfect example of the growing problem in China that I believe could have serious ramifications in the future: a little emperor.
During my time here in Beijing I've done a lot of coaching and a lot of travelling. Often, my travelling on Beijing public transit occurs when I'm coming to and from coaching basketball. It's strange to me that I hadn't connected the dots before, but I've recently come to realize that a lot of basketball skills can come in handy while getting around Beijing. Here's a list I came up with.1. Flex on Contact
For many of my advanced basketball players (players who can dribble, shoot and pass), I try and teach them how to use their bodies most efficiently while moving around the court. One of the best skills that I was taught was flexing when you make contact with another player. This seems like common sense, maybe something that you'd do even without thinking, but it's not. It's a skill that requires focused practice. A deliberate attempt to flex on contact often results in a much more favorable outcome.
For example in basketball, when driving to the basket, you're probably going to run into some big men (forwards and centers). For a relatively skinny guy like me, flexing on contact can be the difference between an and one play and getting your shot thrown into the bleachers. What flexing on contact does is it allows you a brief moment of miniature hulk-like strength that, although it may not actually make you stronger, it allows you to create the contact with the defender and if you time it right often results in them bouncing off of you, instead of the other way around. Imagine taking a punch in the stomach when you're not expecting it as opposed to getting ready for the strike and then flexing and leaning into the blow just before it hits you. It's what my basketball mentor Troy Miles would call making you 'virtually' strong.
When commuting in Beijing, the subway is the basket and the throngs of people are all defense. Throw away any notions of Western 'civilized' manners because those will not help you here. It's eat or be eaten, kill or be killed, only the strong will survive. In the tunnels and corridors below Beijing there are no "rules." Do not wait for people to exit the subway before attempting to get on, do not move if somebody invades your personal space (none of the space is yours), and do not get out of somebody's way if your respective routes take you into each others' paths. I grew up believing The Zax story by Dr. Seuss was a fun children's tale, but it turned out to be the basis for my ethical compass in how to properly conduct myself in Beijing.
Whenever somebody gets in what I call your 'cage' (imagine the little ring around a player in a basketball video game. It's basically the area around you that you'd normally feel as your personal space), prepare to flex. They will not move for you, and you will not move for them. It may seem difficult to carry yourself like this at first, but once you've spent enough time in the jungle you realize that to survive you must adapt. Efficiency is priority number one, and moving in a straight line toward your destination, flexing others out of the way is the ultimate weapon in your Beijing commute. They will bounce off of you and you will be victorious in your commuting battle. These victories will boost your confidence and you will soon find yourself with a changed demeanor. One that will be visible to others and will subconsciously compel some of them to move out of your way.2. Footwork and Boxing Out
In basketball, footwork is everything. It may be one of the most important skills that people tend to neglect, especially if they're more gifted than others in the area. I happen to not be one of these people, so to get a leg up, I've had to focus a lot on footwork during my tenure as a basketball player. Good footwork can be the difference from getting your shot off and having to pass the ball away. From getting a stop on defense to having the offensive player blow by you. To getting the rebound to having the other player push you over and grab it.
In China, I've found focusing on my footwork both improves my speed and allows me much greater comfort, even during rush hour. I can't count the number of times I've had someone lean on me while I'm standing in the train, get so close that I have to adjust my body position so I can see my kindle or phone in front of me, or even get so close I can feel their breath on the back of neck (when they happen to be almost as tall as me).
Getting the right footwork can be the difference between beating the rush to the escalator or waiting the 30 seconds in line while everyone else piles in front of you. This may not seem like a lot of time, but incidents like these, where a herd of people rush through a choke point or a kill zone, are quite common. Make a bold step. Cut someone off and carve out your place. If someone has the gall to step in your path, do not change your way, if you need to step on their heels, so be it. This is the way, and sometimes a scuff on a shoe is a necessary evil in this commuting abyss of grey morality. If you absolutely have to change your course, make sure you brush by the defender shoulder to shoulder, as you would coming off a screen in a basketball game. Remember, efficiency is priority number one.
Once you've reached your destination and you're on the train, you must scope out your surrounding like a secret agent would during a scene just before a big shoot out. You must determine the weak points and protected areas of the train in the blink of an eye. One second of hesitation could be the difference between carving out a place yourself against a wall to lean on or being smashed into a sweaty, disappointed Chinese-American human paste in the middle of the car. Take bold steps, stand wider than you need to, claim your space and do not budge. Someone may come along and stand next to you, even applying pressure with their leg against yours to try and make you readjust, to give up precious inches of space. But they don't know who you are, that you're practiced in the skill of Beijing commuting. Your legs are slightly bent, they're wide, and you're flexing them out. Sound familiar? That's because that's how you stand when you're trying to box out a 6-9 225 pound power forward who's been trying to push you around all night. What's a small Chinese man or woman compared to that? Use the right footing and you'll be fine.
Learning to turn it off
A lot of basketball players become entirely different people when they step on the court. They're your friends, they'll joke around with you before hand, but after tip off you're sworn enemies. It's no different once you've swiped your subway card and gone through the turnstile. Get your game face on and get ready for war. Just remember that when you resurface, the rules are little different. Not completely, because walking around the streets (especially crowded ones) can call for the same mentality. Living your life in this aggressive state of mind is not a good nor a healthy way to live. I like to close my eyes and think about my small apartment where although the space isn't big, I have absolute control over my domain. If somebody enters my abode, they will conduct themselves with both manners and thought concerning those around them. Knowing that such a place exists, even as small as it is, is comforting and allows me respite in such a chaotic and lawless domain. I close my eyes and remember such a place exists, and I can turn off the images of Beijing commuting that flash through my mind and I remember who I really
One of the guys on my trip to North Korea put together a pretty great four minute montage of our time there (and a little bit of our time in China). Here's the link: