TIC 4 – OUT NOW!

Previous instalments of This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom took a forensic look at the author’s initial move to China back in 2007, his early struggles to overcome culture shock whilst trying to survive the brutal north-Chinese winter and navigate his way through various inter-personal relationships, his wild three-year stint in the entertainment hub of Changsha, and his long-awaited move to London to fulfil his dream of becoming a magazine journalist. There, along with the glamorous, celebrity-schmoozing lifestyle, came gambling addiction, a relapse into substance abuse, and some memorable run-ins with corporate duplicity. Soon, burned out, depressed and disillusioned, he stood at another of life’s crossroads.

After a considerable amount of soul searching he decides on a return to China where he feels he has unfinished business and takes up a teaching position in the booming southern metropolis of Guangzhou. The plan was to be a model professional, keep his head down, live a quiet life and save some money. But as most of us know, things rarely go to plan. The moment he arrives he is faced with a string of situations far more dangerous, depraved, and debauched than he has ever experienced.

And that’s before the entire world is plunged into chaos.

He used to wonder what would happen if dreams came true. Now he wonders what you do when your worst nightmares becomes reality.

This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom Part 4- The Return is out now on ebook and paperback.

666 – The Number of the Smooth

I’ve talked before about the little cultural differences between China and the West, and also the influence of numbers in China like Double Eleven and 520.

Here’s an especially weird one…

If you are a Westerner, or come from any country with a Christian influence, you will no doubt recognize the number 666 as being the mark of the devil, or the Number of the Beast, as mentioned in the Book of Revelations (13:17-18) and famously popularized by Iron Maiden. Basically, in Western culture the number is representative of the Antichrist (please refer to the classic movie the Omen) and has become synonymous with Satan.

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However, in China, 666 has nothing to do with Satan whatsoever, and is actually a positive thing.

This is because the Chinese language is full of homophones, which makes it easy to turn numbers into proxies for words and phrases. In this case, the Mandarin pronunciation of the number 6 (in pinyin, liu) is the same pronunciation as the character which means ‘smooth, or well.’ Therefore 666 has come to mean something like ‘everything is going well/smoothly’ and you often see it as text shorthand or incorporated into group chats.

This is a relatively recent phenomenon and is believed to have evolved directly from China’s obsession with the computer game League of Legends (LOL). Players would use it as a quick and easy way to express admiration for good gameplay, first in open chat forums then later on livestreaming platforms, meaning that often all an observer would see would be a string of 6’s.

So there ya go.

For more cultural analysis, check out the This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom series of books.

Let’s Talk About… Racism in China

So is China racist?

Yes it is. Very much so. And it pains me to say it. In this day and age, when the West has worked so hard to stamp out racism we shouldn’t really be having this conversation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing China for the sake of it. If you’ve been following my writing at all, you’ll know how much I love the place. I’ve spent almost a third of my life living and working there. But nothing is perfect, and we are all just works in progress. Unfortunately, China has a few faults, and today I’m going to address one of them. It will make uncomfortable reading for some, but it’s necessary for the greater good I think. Sticking your head in the sand and ignoring the issue won’t resolve anything.

China’s, shall we say, intolerance for other cultures and belief systems has been well-documented in recent times (see the ruthless crushing of democracy in Hong Kong, the forced eviction of black residents in Guangzhou during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, and the continuing ill treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang). There have been enough column inches relating to those issues, written by people much more qualified than me, so I’ll leave that to the experts and focus instead on my own personal experiences.

This isn’t so prevalent these days, but when I first went to China in 2007 and for a couple of years after, the general animosity towards visitors was prevalent. I was stared at wherever I went. It wasn’t unusual to walk down a street and see dozens of people stop what they were doing to look at you. This might seem like a trivial thing and true, I know people have been through a lot worse, but the staring was indicative of something deeper. There was a level of resentment sometimes bordering on outright hatred. You could see and feel it. How much of this was based on suspicion of outsiders or a general fear of the unknown is unclear, but it was definitely there. And no, all the staring wasn’t down to ‘curiosity’ as people have suggested.

A lot of the treatment foreigners have to endure in China is indirect and subversive, and this fucks with your mind. You constantly question whether you are over-thinking things or being hyper-sensitive. For example, take the word ‘laowai’ which anyone who has spent any amount of time in China will be familiar with. It literally means ‘outsider’ but comes with a lot of negative connotations. It’s rare for anyone to call you laowai to your face. That’s because it is often seen as rude or confrontational, especially in these supposedly more enlightened times. Some more clued-up foreigners take instant offence to it and at the very least it can be said that the term reinforces this ‘us against them’ attitude propagated by the government.

The fact remains that foreigners living in China are treated differently, and that isn’t even seen as wrong. It’s just the way it is. There are Chinese people, and then there is everyone else. There is a popular saying in mandarin that roughly translates to ‘You know China.’ Usually reserved for people who have spent time there, maybe learned some of the language, on the surface it sounds like a compliment, or at least an acknowledgement. But like so many other things in China, there is a deeper meaning lurking beneath the surface. The sentence comes with an unspoken suffix. What people actually mean when they say that is, ‘You know China. But you will never be Chinese.’ In other words, no matter what you do, you will never be truly accepted. That makes it exclusive, rather than inclusive.

The Chinese attitude toward black people is especially distasteful. I’ve lost count of the times people have said to me, in a hushed conspirational tone, “Hey, do you like black people?” I always feel like they’re hoping or expecting I will say no. On more than one occasion I’ve had to point out to students that they can’t use the ‘N’ word. It shouldn’t really need saying, but the fact that they even know the word is evidence that it has been, to some degree, normalized in Chinese society. It isn’t just ignorance. The way they keep it all on the down-low suggests they know this behaviour is fundamentally wrong. It also kick-starts your paranoia. If Chinese people are running up to me asking if I ‘like’ black people, they are probably asking black people if they ‘like’ whites. This behaviour only drives wedges between people.

As far as being treated differently is concerned, one thing that always springs to mind is the practice some places in China have of operating two pricing systems, one for locals and one for foreigners. This is not seen as being unfair. In fact, quite the opposite. The businesses that do it think they are just making adjustments according to the relative wealth of foreigners. The preconception that all foreigners are on high salaries and can therefore afford to pay more for the same products as the locals is, of course, completely wrong. This, I think, is down to simple naivety and lack of not only education but common sense. And greed, of course. One example that springs to mind is the little family-owned convenience store near my apartment in Changsha. In my first couple of weeks in the city I stopped there almost every day to buy cigarettes. The brand I smoked was Honghe which cost 7 RMB a pack (I always had expensive tastes). I was happy to pay it, as it was less than 20% of the price of a pack of cigs in the UK. Happy that was until I bought the same pack in a different shop and found out everywhere else only charged 5 RMB. Yes, it’s only 2 RMB difference, but it’s the principal that counts. Those 2 RMB hits will mount up.

I went back to the store and asked why they were charging me more than other places were for the same thing. At first they pretended to not understand what I was saying, which is a common tactic in China which the locals use to escape uncomfortable situations like this one. I know the woman I was talking to spoke some English because we had chatted before, something I quickly reminded her of. She eventually relented, and admitted I was being charged ‘foreigner prices.’ I never went to that shop again. So for the sake of a few quick 2 RMB hits, they lost out on two years of business from me. This short-sighted approach to money grubbing is another common Chinese trait. This kind of stark cultural difference comes as a shock. We just don’t expect to be treated that way. It’s in total contrast to our (supposedly) enlightened way of western living where we endeavour to treat everyone equally and face trial-by-media or industrial-scale legal action awaits if we don’t. Not that the west is perfect. Racism exists there, too. The difference is that we are actively trying to stamp it out whilst the Chinese government seems happy to promote it. If you’ve ever read a Chinese newspaper, or even seen a Chinese movie, you’ll instantly notice how skewed everything is towards favouring the ‘Motherland.’ The propaganda is so powerful it promotes and encourages extreme patriotism. Not that that’s a bad thing in and of itself. We should all be proud of where we come from. But not if that pride comes at the expense of knocking other people and places just so you can feel superior to them.

Something else that feeds into how the Chinese treat foreigners is the infamous one-child policy which created a huge gender imbalance in China. There are a lot of single, bitter men in China, and if they see a foreigner with a Chinese girl they take it as a personal affront. As if us laowais were fishing in already-depleted waters. A friend of mine was beaten up in Beijing once because he was with a Chinese girl and those stares I mentioned earlier are more profound when you are out with a girl. Weirdly, in those situations, the girl becomes a victim of it, too. One of my Chinese exes said she felt the guys staring at her were trying to make her feel guilty, almost like she was ‘betraying’ China by chooseing to step out with a foreigner rather than a local. Even after the policy’s dissolution, there’s no sign of the gender imbalance being rectified anytime soon because in 2019, there were 114 boys born per 100 girls. That’s 14 angry, disaffected Chinese guys who can’t find partners and can’t have a family. If we assume for argument’s sake that 2% of Chinese women have foreign partners, then that figure rises to 16 angry disaffected Chinese guys for every 100 Chinese girls. As the population of China is rapidly approaching 1.4 billion, that’s an awful lot of angry, disaffected Chinese guys. This animosity invariably extends to your Chinese girlfriend’s family. As friendly and accepting as they may outwardly appear, make no mistake, they would much prefer it if their daughter hooked up with a nice, (preferably rich) local guy. There is a stigma attached to openly dating a foreigner, but more than that, this attitude is self-serving in the extreme. For the older generations in China, kids essentially life insurance policies. They look after you, physically and financially, when you get old. And nobody wants to see their insurance policy up and leave to set up home on another continent. I think there might also be an element of jealousy involved. The parents and grandparents are resentful that their kids and grandkids have opportunities they never had. Let’s not forget that until the early eighties most of the country lived in extreme poverty. The Chinese have long memories.

Sadly, the animosity extends to all foreigners, not just those from different ethnic pools. Because of a history of warfare and things like Unit 731 and the Rape of Nanking the Chinese, perhaps justifiably, reserve most of their hatred for the Japanese. They have a fair amount for India, too. It seems nobody is safe from Chinese racism, most of it government-approved, but I really think it’s time they grew up.

My new book This is China Part 3: The Wilderness Years is out now on Red Dawn Publications.

Comedy Week

I teach English at a university in Guangzhou. One week, I thought it might be a good exercise to explore the cultural differences between East and West through the mechanism of humour. As part of the exercise, I asked my students, mostly first and second year college students from Guangdong Province, to each share their favourite joke with the class. Here are some of my favourite ones.

A panda walks into a bar, and says, “I would like a glass of……..”

The bartender says, “Why the pause?”

The panda says, “Dude, I’m a panda. Of course I have paws.”

– Yuki

A man’s wife cooked shrimp fried rice for the first time and gave him a full bowl. It tasted salty and dry and was difficult to swallow.

The wife look at him carefully and said, “is my cooking delicious?”

“Very!” said the man, not wanting to hurt his wife’s feelings. “It’s so delicious I just wish there was more!”

The wife breathed a sigh of relief: “No problem,” she said. “You can have mine. I don’t like it. i’m going to order a takeaway.”

– Didi

Mrs. Brown: Oh, my dear, I have lost my precious little dog! 

Mrs. Smith: But you must put an advertisement in the papers! 

Mrs. Brown: It’s no use, my little dog can’t read.

– Yvette

There was once a man walking along a riverbank. On his journey, he saw another man on the opposite side of the river. This man started waving his hands in the air, shouting, “Please help me! Quickly! I have to get to the other side!”

The first man thought about it for a moment, then said, “But friend, you’re already on the other side,” and continued on his journey.

– Sam

I love the typically understated opening in this one:

Someone died. When he went to heaven he said to God, “What does a thousand years of time mean to you?”

“Only a minute,” God replied.

“Okay,” the man said. “So what does ten thousand gold pieces mean to you?”

“It is a meaningless amount,” God replied.

“In that case,” said the man, “Would you mind lending me a gold piece?”

“No problem at all,” God said. “Just wait a minute.”

– Hendrix

Girl: “Quick! Call me an ambulance!”

Boy: “You’re an ambulance.”

– Blair

A man called the hospital and said, “My wife is going into labour what should I do?”

The nurse replied, “Is this her first child?”

“No, this is her husband.”

– Cynthia

Teacher: Why are you late for school every morning?
Tom: Every time I come to the corner, a sign says, “School-Go slow”.

– Ironically, a student called Tom, who is always late.

A man tried to get a job in a stage show. “What can you do?” asked the producer.
“Imitate birds,” the man said.
“Are you kidding?” answered the producer, “People like that are a dime a dozen.”
“Well, I guess that’s that.” said the actor, as he spread his arms and flew out the window.

– Sally

Do you want to hear a really long joke?

Joooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooke!

– Apple

An old couple went to take a photo, the photographer asked, “Grandpa, do you want side light, back light or full light?”

The uncle shyly replied: “I don’t care, can you give your aunt a pair of shorts?”

– Candy


Huh? Right?

That last one is fairly typical of the kind of things my students usually come out with. I’ll be honest, not many of them make much sense to me. Is it a translation problem? If so, what could it be? Or is the joke actually hilarious, and I’m just being thick?

You tell me.

At least she tried, though.

My new book, This is China Part 3: The Wilderness Years is out now on Red Dawn Publications.

Let’s Talk About… Tantan

For those who don’t know, Tantan is a dating app, known in some circles as a Chinese Tinder. You install it on your phone, input your location, peruse the pictures and then swipe right if you like, or left if you don’t. It’s a huge platform, and in mid-2018 boasted a user base in excess of 100 million. I’ve been using it for a couple of years, and I’ve had a fair bit of success. I’ve talked to hundreds of women, made a few friends and slept with a few women. However, like most internet dating apps, or like the internet in general, not everybody is who they say they are.

Obviously, we all use our best, probably filtered pictures. We might also say we are a few inches taller, or a few years younger than we really are. This is the dating game. However, some people present a whole fake persona in a bid to lure you into some potentially damaging situation.

In my experience, there are two kinds of fake Tantan user; the scammer and the gay, and I’m going to tell you how to spot them.

The Scammer

The pictures are usually of ‘model’ quality, making you think you’ve struck gold when you match. They are unusually chatty and friendly, asking questions about your job and where you’re from. A red flag is if they claim to own their own company or be self-employed. They are especially keen to migrate to other apps, usually WeChat or Whatsapp. I assume this is a way to harvest your contact details. They see talking to you as ‘work,’ so they rarely respond to your messages on the weekends, when you would expect ‘normal’ people to have more free time. Most of them also have VIP membership, which you have to pay for. One of the perks is that you automatically match with anyone who swipes right on your profile, meaning you save time by never having to do any swiping of your own.

Sooner or later, usually sooner, they steer the conversation towards Bitcoin or other vague ‘investments’ and when they feel they have built enough confidence, they’ll hit you with their spiel:

“Do u know Bitcoin?”

“Have u ever invested in gold?”

“I’m looking at the currency exchange. What about u?”

It’s a scammer. Run.

The gay men pretending to be girls

These people also use fake pictures, but tend to steal them from real profiles so as to appear more realistic. The big giveaway here is they will turn the conversation toward sex at the earliest available opportunity. Most women, especially Chinese women, are rarely so open. They will also want you to send them a photo of your junk.

This approach mystifies me, because surely gay guys would have more luck propositioning other gay guys rather than going to the effort of pretending to be someone else and trying to hoodwink people. Unless, of course that’s that part they like.

The easiest way to identify the secret gays, or have a legit woman go some way to proving she is legit, is simply to ask them to send you a voice message. A man’s voice is usually easily recognizable. If they protest, it’s probably because they have something to hide.

Like I said, there are some genuine people on Tantan, and I hope this advice helps you find them.

Be smart, and be safe.

Check out my books for more tips, advice, and adventures!

Touching Fish & 996 Culture

The Chinese have always had a thing for numbers, or specific sequences of numbers, which in modern internet slang often becomes shorthand for something else. For example, ’88’ is often taken to mean ‘bye bye’ because the Mandarin word for ‘8’ is phonetically similar. Likewise, 520 has come to mean ‘I love you’ and 666 is roughly equivalent to ‘cool.’

Another sequence you hear about a lot is 996, which is a reference to the common practise of working 9am to 9pm, six days a week. This is immediately at odds with Western convention, where most people usually work 9am to 5pm five days a week. Somehow, I don’t think 955 will catch on, though it probably should because this idea that you have to work yourself into the ground in order to get ahead just isn’t healthy. It’s the large companies that promote this ideology simply because it gives them more bang for their buck. A lot of Chinese business leaders are big advocates of 996, for obvious reasons. Alibaba founder Jack Ma has said it is key to being successful in competitive industries while others, like Xibei Canyin CEO Jia Guolong still isn’t satisfied, suggesting people should adopt the 715 (15 hours a day, seven days a week) model instead.

Interestingly, in recent times there seems to be a kind of backlash brewing among young Chinese who are beginning to resent the notion that they are expected to devote seventy or more hours a week to their job when they could be playing video games or singing badly in KTV. And rightly so, I think. A recent article in British newspaper The Guardian laid out the ‘touching fish’ craze, a growing movement basically devoted to skiving. The term is a play on a Chinese proverb: “Muddy waters make it easy to catch fish,” and the idea is to take advantage of the ongoing Covid crisis drawing management’s focus away from supervising their employees. Some employees make a game of it, subversively aiming to be the one who has the most toilet breaks per working day, or fills their hot water flask most often, and compare results anonymously on platforms like Weibo. This indicates just how disenfranchised and disillusioned a large percentage of the work force in China is becoming. It’s also telling that ‘touching fish’ seems to be far more common in the new generation, recent graduates who are generally more well off than their predecessors having seen their families reap the benefits of China’s economic boom. They simply don’t need to work as hard as their parents or grandparents did. Of course, how this state of affairs will impact the future of China is another conversation.

For the record, I deplore laziness. It gets you nowhere. But you can’t help but sympathise with the young Chinese born into a culture of overwork. I imagine most of them find their work boring and unfulfilling, especially those in low-paid, menial jobs. This is one reason why I appreciate the lifestyle of a teacher in China where in most institutions you’re only expected to teach 16 or 18 hours a week, plus a few hours prep. This is in stark contrast to when as a young man I worked at a factory in Wales, or when I was a journalist in London and did ten-hour days in conjunction with a three-hour commute. Balance is important. For a long time, it seems as if the large corporations have been ruthlessly exploiting youthful exuberance, naivety, and a yearning to make one’s mark in the world. They actively encourage overwork and make it known that if you aren’t prepared to put in those seventy-hour weeks, plenty of other people will. This creates competition, but who really benefits? You guessed it, the large corporations. No wonder more and more people are touching fish.

This is China Part 3: The Wilderness Years is out now on Red Dawn Publications

This is China 3: The Wilderness Years (Extract)

Chinese women seem to wear sadness like a badge of honour. To them if love doesn’t hurt, it’s not real. I have no doubt that not only do the vast majority of them expect it to be a painful experience, hence all the drama and manufactured arguments, but they actually welcome it. It ties in with the classical Chinese folk tales they grow up reading, where love is usually forbidden, and invariably led to tragic repercussions.

A perfect example of this can be found in Liang Zhu, commonly known as the Butterfly Lovers. Set in the Jin Dynasty (265-420 AD), the story tells of a girl from a rich family called Zhu Yingtai who goes away to study. During that era girls were not allowed an education, so she disguised herself as a boy. Zhu meets a boy called Liang Shanbo, and the two declare themselves ‘sworn brothers.’ Of course, Zhu falls in love with Liang and is then called back to her family, who have arranged a marriage for her. Months later Liang goes to visit and it is then, in what must have been a classic ‘dude looks like a lady’ moment, he discovers his ‘sworn brother’ is actually a woman. But alas, unable to prevent the wedding, he ends up dying of a broken heart. The wedding procession passes Liang’s grave, which opens up and swallows Zhu. The star-crossed lovers are then transformed into butterflies, and live happily ever after. Or at least, as happily as butterflies who used to be people can live.

There is another, more famous story which illustrates the point even better. Dream of the Red Chamber, written by Cao Xueqin in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), is one of China’s ‘four great novels.’ It’s basically a Chinese Romeo and Juliet. You know how it goes, girl meets boy, they fall in love, the union is forbidden, boy marries someone else, girl drowns herself in a pond, boy turns his back on the world and becomes a monk. Same old, same old. Underlining the fact that almost everything in china has multiple meanings, on the surface it’s your average tragic love story, but on a deeper level it describes the fate of the Qing Dynasty as a whole. The work is so complex there is an academic field of study devoted entirely to it called ‘Redology.’ It wouldn’t be too difficult to devote an entire academic field to Chinese girl’s attitude to love and sex.

This is China Part 3: The Wilderness Years is out now on paperback and ebook via Red Dawn Publications

Let’s Talk About… Being Funny

Or, more forensically, let’s talk about the abject differences between Western and Chinese humour. This is the first instalment of a semi-regular series where I take a closer look at some China-related topics and have a good old natter about them. Mostly for your entertainment, but also to get some stuff off my chest.

I’ve lived and worked in China off and on for over 12 years, something I’ve written about extensively in my This is China book series. Anyone who has had a similar experience will probably tell you that one of the main differences between Eastern and Western people is the humour. We just don’t mesh. Both Mandarin and Cantonese are very complex languages. Like most things in China, they might seem relatively straightforward on the surface, but beneath lies a minefield of hidden meaning, subtleties and sub-text. The finer points don’t often carry over well, so what we are usually left with if someone tries to translate a Chinese joke into English is a nonsensical mishmash of words. Like this:

Q: What do you get if you cross a thirsty man with a chicken?
A: A wooden cupboard!

The Chinese people around you will be cracking up, while you’re still waiting for the punch line.

Here’s another one:

Q: Why is the sea blue?
A: Because the fish make bubbles.

Er… okay.

Nevertheless, telling (and requesting) jokes in class can be an entertaining exercise.

Recently, I shared this joke with a group of college students:

Q: What happened to the blind skunk?

A: He fell in love with a fart

Now, you might think this is easy enough to understand. Even for people who’s first language isn’t English. Farts smell like skunks, and because the skunk couldn’t see, he thought the fart in question was another skunk. Yeah?

Not so.

Strangely, almost all of them knew what a fart was. But some weren’t too sure what a skunk was. That took a bit of explaining. Also, the Chinese are very analytical, pragmatic people. My ‘joke’ was met with a slew of questions as they tried admirably to find the funny part, like, “Was it his own fart or someone else’s?”

I don’t know. Does it matter?

If you ever tell jokes to groups of Chinese students, don’t expect to just have to explain it, be prepared to dissect that sucker.

My book, This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom part 1: The North, is available now.

Let’s Talk About…

I’ll be starting a series on this blog soon called Let’s Talk About…

The idea is every so often, when the mood takes me, I’ll take a long, hard look at various aspects of Chinese culture. I’m not going to preach or anything like that. I might give an opinion, but the main purpose will be to highlight and, well, talk about it. I hope it will generate some discussion, and maybe even help improve people’s understanding. Especially people who have any interest or relationship with China.

So far, topics I am considering are the differences between Chinese and western humour, online dating, dealing with Chinese parents, teaching Chinese kids, the spitting thing, and queuing, or lack of it, as the case may be. If you have any other ideas or topics you’d like to see me tackle, I’d love to hear from you. The whole shebang kicks off soon with a post on racism. More specifically, racism in China. That’ll be fun, right? No. Not fun at all, actually. Which is precisely why we need to talk about it so urgently.

I’m not sure how often I’ll publish new instalments, but when I do I’ll share them to my Facebook page so hopefully they’ll get some coverage.

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