China story/interesting fact of the month

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JUNE 1998
"The most interesting thing I saw in the States was..."

"What surprised you most about the United States?" I asked my Chinese friend. The question was my favorite for Chinese who had visited the States for the first time.

Most answered the modern roads, the clean public toilets and the spacious trains. Alice, however, was amazed by these cookies they gave in Chinese restaurants.

"They are so neat!" she exclaimed. "Each has this little fortune inside it!"

She liked them so much she bought a whole box to bring back and share with her friends. She had never seen them before.

Yes, believe it or not, fortune cookies are a decidedly American invention.

MAY 1998
Nothing tells you more about society than its jokes...

This joke has been going around Beijing for a while, but given Zhu Rongji's recent push to settle the plight of the country's increasing ranks of the unemployed, it seems particularly apropos.

Mao Zedong yi hui shou, da jia dou xia xiang le.
(When Mao Zedong waved his hand, everyone went to the countryside.)

Deng Xiaoping yi hui shou, da jia dou xia hai le.
(When Deng Xiaoping waved his hand, everyone jumped into the "sea of business.")

Jiang Zemin yi hui shou, da jia dou xia gang le.
(When Jiang Zemin waved his hand, everyone "stepped down from their posts." - a Chinese euphemism being used by today's government and press to mean become unemployed.)

APRIL 1998
Dinners with a Guangdong official

This story is from a business dinner I had in Guangzhou (southern China) earlier this year.

My two colleagues and I met Mr. Zhang on the corner of the street near our hotel -- he and his driver picked us up and we made our way to the river-side restaurant district in Guangzhou. There Zhang treated us to an incredibly lavish dinner of every type of seafood imaginable, as well as snake and snake bile dropped into hard Chinese liquor for good measure.

Halfway through the meal, Mr. Zhang, who holds a high position where he oversees several of the major provincial ministries, calls someone on his mobile phone. A colleague, he tell us. Later on, after perhaps half of the dishes had arrived, a Chinese man enters our private room. Zhang gets up, shakes his hand, and introduces us. Thereafter Zhang switches into Cantonese, chatting with the newcomer for several minutes. Zhang waves his hand over the posh setting of way too much food, hoping his friend will join us.

"No thanks," the man says. "I've already eaten." As we proceed with the meal, continuing our conversation primarily with Zhang, the friend gets up and excused himself -- there are some other people in the restaurant he should pay his respects to.

About twenty minutes later he returns, only to sit down for two minutes before abruptly rising to excuse himself. We pay the normal farewell, all standing and shaking hands, and then go about our meal.

As the meal winds to a close, several shots of bai jiu (liquor) down the hatch, red faces all around, my colleague calls to the waitress to "mai dan" (get the bill). This will be on us; it was rare enough for Zhang to meet with my colleague (his old friend), and Zhang had also provided us useful information on the current state of economic and political affairs in the southern province.

The two spent the customary five minutes arguing over the bill, but Zhang of course knows the point is moot -- not because my colleague will pay the bill (which I was thinking), but because his "friend" had already picked it up when he left earlier. The waitress lets us know that the bill had already been settled.

Seemed a little unusual -- a man who picks up the bill only spent five minutes with us, having not even eaten a bite. But what I learned later was that this practice is par for the course in Guangdong. And it is a normal event for Zhang and other Chinese in positions of power. They take their own friends out for expensive meals then call someone they know, knew or who may need their "help" in the future (perhaps it is an approval, a business introduction, looking the other way on paying taxes, etc.), and that person inevitably shows up, and pays the bill. No questions asked. If they don't get the bill, or don't come, there is no guarantee they will get help from the invitee in the future -- when they need it most. It was one telling example of many of the way "guanxi," or personal connections, can work in China.

MARCH 1998
The plane ride

This story is from a former colleague on her flight from Shandong back to Beijing two years ago.

Midway through the flight, the plane hit some turbulence and began to experience some difficulty. Standard procedures were invoked: the captain came on over the intercom and passengers were asked to return to their seats, fasten their seatbelts and put their tray tables in the upright position. A few minutes later things got really rough. Passengers began to panic, and standard procedures were further invoked.

"Ladies and gentlemen," the well-trained and calm stewardess called out in perfect Mandarin over the intercom. "We are now passing out pens and paper. Please write a message to your loved ones. We will collect your writing in 5 minutes and pack it in to a sealed container."

The atmosphere was full of panic. Crying could be heard. Parents were hugging their young children, who were paralyzed with fright, as the plane careened and began to lose altitude.

Three minutes into the exercise, the plane began to stabilize. Shouts of hope could be heard. Could it? Could it be? The plane stabilized momentarily, and the stewardess came back over the loud speaker: "Ladies and Gentlemen, our pilot has informed us that we have stabilized! Would you be so kind as to pass your pens and paper to the center aisle and we will collect them momentarily."

Smiles and hugging transformed the atmosphere. The stewardesses, smiling more than ever and laughing now, collected the notes. Order was restored.

But ten minutes later the plane lurched again. It dipped and dropped. Seat belts were ordered on. People panicked as they looked out the window. Children began to get nervous again.

"Ladies and gentlemen," the same stewardess calmly spoke over the intercom again. "We have experienced some difficulty again..."

She paused, as everyone craned to listen.

"In a few minutes, we will be passing back your letters and pens. We strongly advise finishing your note to your loved one?"

The plane eventually did make it back safely, but only after the above episode occurred once more. No passengers on that flight decided to ride China Air for quite some time?

And you wonder why Chinese memorize the model numbers of big and small planes?

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Michael Wenderoth
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Last updated: July 14, 1998.