Book Review: No City for Slow Men

http://szdaily.sznews.com/html/2014-03/25/content_2819411.htm

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Despite Hong Kong’s reputation for being very welcoming to foreigners, it’s not always that easy for expats to deeply understand the city. Hong Kong is famous for its international style, and people from all over the world enjoy the city’s comforts, yet there remains a barrier between the locals and those who hail from other places.

To share the truth about Hong Kong culture with the English-speaking world, Jason Y. Ng — resident blogger and columnist for Hong Kong-based newspaper South China Morning Post — has written “No City for Slow Men,” covering every subject an HK-phile could ask for.

Published by Blacksmith Books, the book contains 36 essays and covers a broad range of topics. For some writers, it might be a struggle to have so many chapters and keep the quality high, yet every line of Ng’s prose is well-written and full of crucial information for piecing together the puzzle of Hong Kong’s identity.

Split into three parts, the first section “Our Way of Life” concerns corrupt property tycoons, the culture of taking out loans for expensive watches, and the rise of Taobao. The title piece “No City for Slow Men” is about one of the very first impressions a visitor of the city will have — the high speed of life. Ng laments about the lack of relaxation when he writes, “Hong Kong is charming when it is bustling, but loveliest when it is tranquil.”

The second part, “Our Culture,” contains such topics as Chinese New Year and includes many interesting childhood anecdotes. The autobiographical element starts to seep in, which shows off some of Ng’s best writing. There is more on restaurants and cooking, which is, of course, very important to Chinese culture worldwide, as well as an overview of the history of the city and the famous sites that rapidly changed through generations and development.

Finally, “Our Identity” has some of the most compelling pieces of all. “HKID” says it best: Hong Kong is stuck somewhere between the Chinese mainland and the rest of the world, and that causes a bit of an identity crisis. The tense relationship with the mainland is an important point, reaching new lows with the labeling of mainland tourists as “locusts,” which Ng points out is an undeserved reputation. A letter from a mainland student best expresses the argument against prejudice. Another major theme is the contrast between the lives of expats and locals — with their gambling by way of cards instead of mahjong, the strange sport of rugby and lack of Cantonese fluency.

The plight of the domestic worker is an especially important topic, written about with great heart. The personal stories of abuse and tragedy of Indonesian and Filipino maids are very moving. Ng is certainly a compassionate writer and should be commended for bringing these issues to the public’s attention.

As the book concludes, the final essays cement the autobiographical element. After a piece detailing Ng’s struggles with stuttering in his early life, the penultimate “My Father the Artist” goes over the very man whose illustrations pepper the book. It all ends with a touching interview of the author’s mother.

As an emigrant from Guangdong Province who struggled through years of tumultuous change, from poverty to a happy retirement abroad, she best exemplifies the contradictions that make up the history and identity of Hong Kong. “All these years, mother and son have been swept up in a complicated dance of love and reticence,” Ng writes. “Each aching to reassure the other of their happy existence.”

“No City for Slow Men” is available at bookstores in Hong Kong and on Amazon.

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Graffiti SZ

Something missing in Shenzhen, and Chinese cities in general, is graffiti. While people don’t mind tagging phone numbers for services rendered and pasting ugly little ads all over the place, there is a serious lack of creativity. Any good graffiti often gets immediately painted over by the buzz-killing authorities.

It’s not an Asian thing by the way, Japan has some of the best street art in the world. I believe it’s a cultural right, to decorate the blank walls and boring buildings and aging train cars. Real first-tier cities the world over have great tags (especially in Europe)…

Let me just add that in America it is largely a myth that graffiti signifies gang activity. Gang tags are fucking bad art, just stupid geometrical shapes to signify territory in the worst neighborhoods. Good street art, however, is done by real artists and gives a place color and vibrancy. It’s life! It’s pure art, free for everyone to enjoy! No price! Paint over it and there will be a new one, that’s what it’s all about!

So, I’m happy to see good tagging in China. Often the artistic areas of Guangzhou, and Beijing have some quality works. I’m no expert on the subject, but check hereas check out what I’ve seen and liked in SZ:

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Studying for the HSK

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Taxi drivers are easily impressed. Servers less so. But no matter how many times I hear “Your Chinese is so good!” I know it’s not true. In fact, it loses meaning the more I hear it.

I’ve been in China almost six years. I bought textbooks upon textbooks, I rote-wrote thousands of characters, begged my friends to help me study, listened to all the free ChinesePod podcasts I could get my digital hands on, emptied out my flashcards, and read three whole children’s books. But I’ve been in a bit of a slump lately. Really, my Chinese should be better by now.

Shoulda listened to that advice years ago to ditch all my expat friends and only hang out with Chinese. Me and my English-bubble lifestyle~

(If I do say so myself, I still think my writing is not bad for a foreigner. I’ve been told my handwriting is like a child’s, but that’s still better than most foreigner’s even the ones who are totally fluent and literate. This is because I studied Japanese in high school and college and at least I got that headstart, although besides kanji the languages are quite different. One day I’ll blog about survival-Japanese while wandering Tokyo…)

I have no natural ability at language—just as I have no natural ability at writing. Simply gotta work hard at it, long as it takes. Can’t blame it on my Anglosphere background either; my overachieving younger sister speaks four languages totally fluently. You’d think I’d have the language gene but I don’t. And I didn’t study Chinese young, the first of it was reading a phrasebook on the plane ride over to learn pinyin basics. I moved here when I was 26, mostly a fully-formed grownup (mostly but not completely), isn’t that relatively old in learning-new-languages age?

So, for years I’ve been able to go shopping and order what I like to eat from menus and travel by myself and ask for directions and yell at taxi drivers and tell kids to be quiet and introduce myself, and of course ask where the toilet is. It’s no longer enough.

I need more. I need something that validates I learned something in my years abroad. I need something to put on my resume. I need a piece of paper.

I have since given in and been seeing a qualified Mandarin tutor for the past few months, and I plan on taking the HSK 4 test later this year. That’s ‘Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi ‘ 汉语水平考试, (四级). No pinyin, lots of listening, lots of grammar, writing, etc. I got the proper books, I meet my teacher once a week at KFC and I do my homework and now onwards and upwards. The reading is easiest. In speaking, I feel my tones are mostly okay—more or less intuitive at this stage—but I need to form longer sentences. More vocabulary. Remembering stroke order without and how to write without looking at my phone. Counters. Idioms. Again, grammar grammar grammar. The passive form 被/把 particularly confounds me. SO MUCH TO LEARN.

Wish me luck and 加油!

 

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And finally, some handwriting

 

Expat demos part the second: Good Businessmen & Evil Businessmen

In our last section we went over the English teacher dilemma. Suffice to say, many are losers but not all. Now on to my personal classifications for those with real jobs. Again, forgive me for generalizing but it’s too much fun and isn’t that what we humans do…

 

Good Businessmen: Your average fellow who happens to work here. Maybe they’re interested in China and came on purpose and learn the language, but it’s also possible they were relocated here and make the most of it. Either way they aren’t the complainy type.

Long-term or short-term, they respect others and are citizens of the world and know how to conduct themselves with dignity. It’s no big deal to be in China, it’s simply a good place to work and live. The more ambitious ones start their own company, trading or whatever, and make good money and contribute to the world well enough.

I’ve particularly met a lot of cool Germans of this variety. Point is, they are quality people who work here and act like they would anywhere else in the world. These are expats worth networking with at parties, and most of all worth making friends with.

 

Evil Businessmen: Personally, I’d argue that the arrogant rich trader doesn’t get enough of a bad rap in the expat scene.

Some people might be easily impressed by such big spenders, but I just know there’s something off about them. They complain, they don’t want to learn the language, and deep down they seem hostile to it all behind their sales-trained smiles. Most of these guys aren’t even that rich, they’d be middle managers back home but abroad they think they are so damn big shit.

There is a tinge of racism and classism that one can sense as well. Sometimes it’s not about sensing at all, sometimes it’s blatant racism. Sexism too, more on that below.

This kind of expat has a privileged background and has come to this poor country to do whatever he wants. The locals are seen as merely the servant class meant to massage his feet (or elsewhere) and serve him food and work in his factory. Any friendships to be made are rather shallow and condescending.

Note this sort of expat never ever makes friends with Chinese males. But how very interested he is in local females. Here’s the sexist part– listen to the ol’ rant about how feminism has ruined the women back home, and he prefers uneducated Asians for their docile submissiveness as well as allowance for cheating. He might even be fine with outright paying for it and uncomfortably likes to tell you so, complete with details about his latest Southeast Asian business trip.

Let me just say it, there are a whole lot of these very old men with very young girls. Perhaps we’ve all had May-December romances in our past or present, mistakes to learn from or maybe a true love for the ages. It is kinda natural for girls to be attracted to mature men, and for men to like younger women. Yet, once you start getting into twenty-year gaps, upwards to thirty or forty, let us simply agree that is creepy and more than a tad undignified. I know way too much: the American in his forties in open relationship with teenager, the Brit in his sixties with a stream of twenty-something girls around him. Am I being ageist; are they supposed to be breaking down generational barriers or something? Come on. OK, moving on from that subject now.

There are all stripes out there. Nobody’s perfect and some may lean towards these general aspects without being that bad, some are more decent than others. But I’ve met some true sociopaths in this world, and they have a talent for masking their evil with material success. Watch out. I’m serious.

Call me bitter, but I never cared much for expats of that ilk.

 

That should about cover it. Am I on to something? Or am I being too harsh? I have left out plenty, but don’t you see someone you know? How about reflections of yourself? Let’s discuss.

And I might as well put it out there: guess which demo(s) go for me…

Expat Demographics in 4 Quadrants part the first: Loser English Teachers and Cool English Teachers

In my latest post, I shall attempt to categorize the demographics of the mainland Chinese expat in four quadrants. Just a theory of mine I like sharing. Please note this is very much generalization. It is not meant to encompass all foreigners, it’s about Westerner expats and their scene. In fact, this mostly goes for males so I’m going to assume masculine terms below. Forgive me for painting with a broad brush, there are degrees and exceptions but I think it by and large counts.

Often the casual observer makes an even simpler observation on expat demos; there are loser English teachers, and everybody else. There is more than a kernel of truth in that stereotype to be sure, but I hope to be a bit more detailed so as a to give a break to our ESL friends and simultaneously not give a break to some other sorts.

It breaks up as so: Loser English Teachers & Cool English teachers, and Good Businessmen & Evil Businessmen

 

Loser English Teachers: This is an archetype we all know well. The dropouts, the drunks at clubs, the young and (sadly, sometimes very) old who don’t seem to be employable anywhere else in the world and tend to have no skill sets and are only hired because of a foreign face. It’s downright profiling.

Not necessarily native-English speakers at all, they can hail from any country in the world and simply bounce from one ‘performing monkey’ job to the next. The blond Russians, the aloof central Europeans, and some seriously awkward French-Canadians.

The native speakers themselves are more often than not terrible at English, especially in writing, and obviously have no business teaching anything. Yet here they are. The Australians with serious alcoholism issues, the Americans with barely a high school education, the British sex addicts.

They drink, they party, they fuck, and they learn nothing. And, without being too crass, let’s just say they are into Asian chicks. And they generally can’t get chicks back home. You surely know what I mean.

It should be noted, however, that as China has progressed these past years the average Chinese female citizen is not so easily impressed by a white face and expects more. Time to learn some new skill sets, people.

Simply put, these guys are not TEFL-certified and the desperate shady schools that hire them are not doing a service to their students at all.

 

Cool English Teachers: But it’s not all bad. A lot of people take up the opportunity to move to China because they are actually interested in Chinese culture. They might go after graduation, or later in life to reinvent themselves, perhaps take advantage after a gap year of backpacking, and ESL is an easy enough job to see the world and get your foot in the door in China.

They might party, but that’s not all they do. With more long-term plans in mind, they learn Mandarin and can eventually get jobs in other fields. Then there are the very long-term expats who settle down here and raise families as well.

Anyway, no shame in being that kind of ESL guy at all, and I for one think they are undeservedly lumped in with the losers. As for teaching, credentials aren’t everything and there are solid people out there who just have a knack. There’s my defense.

What do you think? Recognize any expat friends up there? Ever taught English yourself, where do you fall on the scale?

(Btw, a group I notice left out is the qualified international school teacher. Like, they can teach math and actually majored in teaching. That is a wholly different animal, more like the Good Businessman than anything else as far as being people with “real jobs” who just happen to work in China. With that…)

Part the second, Good Businessmen & Evil Businessmen, to be continued…

Shenzhen Daily: American starting local volunteer group

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Jason Stine presenting at the Shenzhen Idea Exchange event in
OCT-LOFT last Saturday

http://szdaily.sznews.com/html/2014-03/03/content_2793413.htm

THE local expat community is full of nice people, but they aren’t generally known for charitable contributions. However, 25-year-old Jason Stine, an American from San Diego, California, said he appreciates his life in China and is excited about giving back to the community that he feels is his new home.

“My parents live in Houston, Texas, now,” he explained. “My life and friends are here in China. To that extent, this is my primary home.”

Stine has been in China for four years. After graduating with a combined major of liberal arts and engineering — the liberal arts half included studying Mandarin — he moved to Shanghai. He moved to Shenzhen four months ago, for the weather.

While he was in Shanghai, he got involved with a volunteering and networking organization called BEAN, or Business Entrepreneurs Altruism Networking. Founded in 2003 in Seattle, it has expanded globally and now helps people all over the world.

“It became my community away from home,” Stine said, adding that the Shanghai BEAN chapter hosted several events per week and had hundreds of members. “The Shanghai model is huge.”

He volunteered for activities including playing board games and mahjong with senior citizens, spending time at a shelter for stray cats, and leading a Reading Buddies event at a center for poor children of migrant workers while collaborating with included.org.

“What interests me with these events is more the social interaction aspect of it, and the feeling that I’m a leader of something truly worthwhile. I love socializing with others, and I love being the leader; these moments can make me feel like I really belong in the community,” Stine said. “Volunteering can be really fun, too, so why not use the two latter qualities and put them to some good use to help those in need and benefit the local community?”

The heart of BEAN’s strategy is to connect the community with charities in need of manpower.

“BEAN gives foreigners a chance to volunteer with no language-barrier issues, and connect with other organizations that focus on their own niche,” he added.

Stine, an events and project manager in Nanshan District, said he’s very optimistic about the future of BEAN in Shenzhen. The local chapter is still new and not quite as active as its Shanghai counterpart yet, he said. An early step is learning about local organizations — such as the Shenzhen Blue Ocean Conservation Association, which cleans up trash at beaches in Yantian District — and connecting them with expats.

“I can provide the framework for volunteers. All I need are people, and it’s ready to go. The toolbox is there,” Stine said.


More information about BEAN and volunteering with the local chapter can be found online at:

http://shenzhen.beanonline.org/