Thursday, June 23, 2011

Chop Chop

Wherever you go in China you will find merchants who are selling seals that can be crafted to your personal identity.  These seals can be made from wood, plastic, metal or even jade.  These personal seals are an important part of Chinese history and are still being used today.   Today these personalized seals are known as chops.

The emperors of China were the first to use seals to identify official documents that were issued by the ruling family.  These seals were originally known as , later renamed bǎo.  The word chop is a westernization of the Chinese word and is now in common use throughout China.  When the emperor sent out an official decree his representatives would take the document out to the provinces with the official chop on the document.  The local official would stamp the decree with his official seal to verify that he had received it.   The Emperors representative was often anxious to have the decree stamped with the chop so he could be on his way.  He would tell the local representative “chop chop” and that is where the western term “chop chop” to mean hurry up originated.

The chop is still in wide use throughout China.  Most Chinese will have a personal chop designed when they are born and this chop will be used on official documents as a form of identity.  Since the Chinese language is character based they do not have signatures, as we know them in the west.  The chop serves the same purpose as your official signature. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Planking on the Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China
Ginny on the Great Wall
Gerry Planking on the Great Wall
It is often cited that the Great Wall of China is the only man made object that can be seen from space.  The reality is that many man-made objects including cities and dams can be seen from low earth orbit without the aid of binoculars.  The Great Wall is barely visible from low (120 miles above sea level) earth orbit under perfect conditions.   Based on my experience in China, “perfect” conditions never exist.  In fact if the air pollution were to be just a bit worse than it was on the day I was there I would not be able to see the Great Wall if I were standing right on top of it. 

The Great Wall is indeed a massive structure and it is all the more impressive when you see the terrain it is built on.  While not as high as the Rocky Mountains the hills the wall is built on are comparable to the Great Smokey Mountains.  I can’t imagine the manpower required to carry these massive stones to the top of these mountains.  It is almost unbelievable.

When we arrived at the tourist stop that was the access point to the wall the first thing many tourists do is buy a tee shirt that says, “I climbed the Great Wall of China and Survived”.  Since I’m not into buying touristy kind of stuff (see my blog “hey mister can I shine your tennis shoes”) I decided it would be sufficient to climb the wall and have my picture taken on it.

While climbing the wall is not like climbing Half Dome in Yosemite it can be challenging for people who are not in the best shape.  Most people climb a few hundred yards up the wall and call it quits.  The top of the wall is pretty smooth and there are parts where the incline is very steep and other parts where there are steep steps.  I climbed about 1.5 miles up the wall and felt that I had a pretty good work out.  I reached a section where workers were tuck-pointing the wall and they had barricades up blocking any further advancement.  Even at this remote location there were merchants selling tee shirts that said, “I climbed the Great Wall of China and Survived”.  Again I didn’t buy one.

A couple from Australia and another couple from Las Vegas were some of the few people that made it this far up the wall.  The Aussies decided that we should do something to commemorate this accomplishment and they came up with the idea of planking on the wall.  I was a bit leery about extending my body vertically over the wall when the ground was over 50 feet below us.  In fact none of us were anxious to trust the others to hold our legs while we extended our upper bodies over the wall. 

We decided that lying on our backs atop the parapet would qualify as planking the Great Wall of China.  So that’s what we did as the picture below shows.  I know some purists who read this would say, “what a wimp”.  Well, it’s the best we could do under the circumstances.  I must say that I did feel a bit queasy lying there and it is about as much planking as I ever want to do.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Are There Any Orientals Left in China?

A few weeks before we were scheduled to leave for our China trip my wife was talking to our 30-year-old daughter about the trip and during the conversation my wife used the term “Oriental” when referring to the Chinese. Our daughter was quick to chastise my wife for using such a derogatory term when referring to people from China.  My wife was taken aback by our daughters comment and said she had no idea that the word “Orientals” was so offensive.

Later that day my wife asked me if I realized the word “Orientals” was considered an ethnic slur.  My response was; “you’ve got to be kidding me, I had no idea”.   After due consideration I thought, wait a minute have I been living in a different universe?  When did I miss the decree that the word “Oriental” can no longer be used?  What else have I missed?  Have I been offending people when I call the English Brits, Canadians Canucks and Australians Aussies? 

I mean I know I shouldn’t use the term Krauts when referring to Germans, or Frogs for the French and Polack when referring to the Polish but where did the ban on calling Chinese Orientals come from?  Could I really be an old fogie who has become a bigot in my old age?  Wait a minute; did I just use a senior ethnic slur against myself?   This is becoming way too complicated.   I can assure you the last thing I want to do is offend any ethnic group but this seems to me to be political correctness run a muck!

Once we arrived in China I decided to do a little investigating on this thorny issue.  I donned my Inspector Closeau disguise and began my investigation.  My first “suspect” was an Oriental Asian woman on our tour who was born in Hong Kong and now lived in Canada.  I asked Ava if she would be offended if I called her an Oriental.  She looked at me rather dumbfounded and said; “what are you smoking?  Of course I don’t take offense with that term.  Orient means the east, China is in the east, I am from China, and therefore I am oriental”.

I thanked her for her directness and as I was leaving she said; “by the way Gerry take off that Inspector Closeau disguise.  You look stupid, everyone knows its really you and it makes you look uncomfortable”.  I again thanked her for her honesty but as I was leaving I had a feeling that since she really was now a Canadian maybe she really didn’t know the proper answer to my question.  I continued to pursue my investigation sans the Inspector Closeau disguise. 

At dinner over the next several nights I asked a number of people from our tour group, none of them were Oriental Asian, if they thought the term “Oriental” was derogatory.  Every person said “of course not”.   A few people did say it may be a dated term but there is certainly no malicious intent associated with the use of the word.  I was starting to feel pretty good that my wife and I are correct to use the word “Oriental” but my investigation was not yet complete.

As a final test to determine the appropriateness of the term “Oriental” I interviewed a number of the guides for our tour.  All of our tour guides were born and raised in China; all that I talked to have visited America and they all speak English as well as I do.  When I asked them if it was OK to refer to them as Orientals to a person they all said “yes”.  I finally felt vindicated that I can still call people from the far east Orientals but if a person does take offense I will offer my apology and refer to them as Asians in the future.

So, the answer to my initial question is; “yes, China is loaded with Orientals”.

As a final bit of investigative work I did google the phrase; “use of the word Oriental” and found the results to be a muddled mess.  I did find one article of interest which I include as part of my report.

Why is the word "Oriental" considered derogatory?

My father does a lot of business in a place that I call "Asia", but which he refers to as "The Orient". And he's friends and colleagues with many people that I call "Asians" but he sometimes calls "Orientals".

A lot of people consider the word "Oriental"---which simply means "Eastern"---to be out-dated and/or derogatory. But is it? And if so, why? I found an interesting answer on Wikipedia, a website which never contains inaccuracies:
"Some people think the term 'Oriental' is derogatory, largely because of its connection to imperial 19th century Europeans and Americans who are thought to have held a patronising attitude towards the region. ... Major objections to the use of 'Oriental' are chiefly limited to North America. Its use is much less controversial in Europe and Hawaii, as well as in Asia where, especially in Southeast Asian countries, the word is in comparatively widespread usage. In Europe the term is used to describe such things as the East's cuisine and goods, ancient culture, and religions, at times to denote an exotic quality with upmarket or mildly positive connotations."

So, North Americans are still upset because of attitudes that prevailed in the 19th century. Huh?

My dad is either very worldly, or just far and above philistine American backwardness and isolation. And damn, he's so down with his brothas and sistas from China, Thailand, Korea and Indonesia, that he's even allowed to call them 'Orientals'. My dad is The Shit, people.

Or maybe it's because in the 60s he occasionally played bass for Katherine & the Firebyrds 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

If it’s 10:00 AM in Shanghai, what time is it in Xian?

China is a vast country with an area almost the same size as the USA (3.8 million square miles) and a population of almost 1.4 billion people.  In theory China spans 5 time zones.  The most eastern part of China is in Manchuria and the most western part is Xinjiang province, which is almost as far west as Kabul Afghanistan.  Therefore, if it is 10:00 AM in Manchuria it should be 5:00 AM in Xinjiang province.  But alas, as you will quickly learn once you visit China, nothing is what it should be.

Before 1949 there were 5 times zones in China but Chairman Mao in his infinite wisdom decided that it would be best if all of China had only one time zone.  So, on September 27 1949 all of China went on Beijing time, which is 8 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time.  Well that’s not quite true.  Xinjiang province decided that there was too big of a difference between Beijing time and what the sun was telling them for their province so they created Urmuqi time, which is 6 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time.  The only problem is that the Central Government does not recognize Urmuqi.  So the locals in Xinjiang use one time and the central government uses another time.  Who’s on first?  I don’t know!

Daylight Savings Time was observed in China from 1986 until 1991.  Daylight Savings time is no longer observed in China.

The answer to the original question; “if it’s 10:00 AM in Shanghai, what time is it in Xian?”   10:00 AM even though it is in a different time zone according to international standards!

P.S. please don’t ask me what time it is in Hong Kong and Macao.

Hey Mister Can I Shine Your Tennis Shoes?

One of the challenges one faces when touring China is “running the gauntlet”.  This refers to the horde of merchants who are always hanging around when a tour bus or cruise ship arrives at a tourist destination with a load of westerners.  These merchants are some of the most aggressive sales people you will ever encounter.  They are hawking all kind of merchandise.  You can buy a genuine imitation Rolex watch for as little as $5.00 any kind of tee shirt for $5.00 or almost any kind of trinket or book imaginable of one of China’s tourist attractions. 

They also offer all kinds of services ranging from “freshly” prepared fruits to offers to carry your bags.  One of the most innovative merchants I encountered on our trip to China was the shoeshine lady.  I first met her as we were debarking from our river cruise ship in Chongqing.  She offered to shine my shoes but since I was wearing tennis shoes I didn’t see the point.  She followed me for about a quarter mile and I thought I had finally lost her when I reached the promenade above the river.  

There was a very nice view of the opposite side of the river and I stopped to take a few pictures.  While I was taking a picture I felt something brushing against my shoes and when I looked down, there was the shoeshine lady “cleaning” my tennis shoes.  I started hopping around as if someone had given me a hotfoot and began yelling; “what in the hell are you doing?”   The more I hopped, the more she tried to “clean” my tennis shoes. 

Fortunately I was only about 50 feet away from our tour bus and I made a mad dash for the door.   I managed to reach the safety of the tour bus and when I got in, everyone was having a good laugh at my expense.  A few people in our group said that my encounter with the shoeshine lady was one of the more entertaining events of the entire tour. 

When I looked outside the bus I saw the shoeshine lady with a big smile waving at me.  I decided that she earned a nice little tip for bringing some grins to our tour.  I made a mad dash out of the bus and threw $2.00 to her and retreated back into the bus before she had a chance to “clean” my tennis shoes.


  1. Never look a merchant directly in the eye.
  2. Keep moving; once you stop they will be all over you like flies on cow manure.
  3. If you express any interest in their wares you will have a tar baby stuck to you for the duration.
  4. If you are really interested in an item ask the price and then offer 25% of the asking price.  After that the best negotiator wins. 
  5. You are not buying quality.   
  6. The merchants do not have a return policy.   
  7. If your watch works for more than 2 months you got a “good” deal.