The Chinese Curse

May you live in interesting times…

These words are often attributed to an ‘ancient Chinese curse,’ the clear meaning being that ‘interesting times’ are challenging and often fraught with danger, whereas to live in unintetesting times, would be a blessing by comparison.

However, despite being widely known in English simply as ‘the Chinese Curse,’ and it certainly sounds like something a Chinese person would say in that it is multi-layered and works on several levels, no actual Chinese source for the saying has ever been found. The closest Chinese expression is 寧為太平犬,不做亂世人which translates as, “It is better to be a dog in times of tranquility than a human in times of chaos” which can be found in volume 3 of the 1627 short short collection ‘Stories to Awaken the World’ by Feng Meng Long.

Apparently, the first recorded usage of the phrase was in 1936, when a friend of then- British Ambassador to China Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen told him about it before he left. He wrote about it in a memoir published in 1949. Other researchers claim to have traced the ‘curse’ back to 1898, and this line from a speech given by British statesman Joseph Chamberlain:

“I think that you will all agree that we are living in most interesting times. I never remember myself a time in which our history was so full, in which day by day brought us new objects of interest, and, let me say also new objects for anxiety.”

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

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.

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.

Please consider signing up for this blog on the homepage and/or giving my posts the occasional ‘like’ or ‘share.’ It really means a lot.

What People are Saying…

When Alex Coverdale’s first book was published in 2018 it was an immediate sensation, quickly attaining Amazon #1 Bestseller status.

Here are the views of some of the customers.

“The writing felt very personal and real. At the end of the book I felt like l had lived another life…an interesting one to boot. Good job.”

“The author was the forbidden fruit to Chinese girls and in describing his experiences he gives some insights into the Chinese remake mindset. And this is the most valuable part of his book.”

“Highly recommended for those interested in the expat teacher lifestyle in China.”

“A great insight to how another part of the world works.”

A new, updated version of the book is available in serialized form on paperback and ebook now.

See here for more information.

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This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom Part 2 – Hunan Province (Extract)

After fleeing recession-hit Britain in September 2007, I spent a year living and working as an English teacher in Beijing before meeting a girl and moving to Tianjin, northern China, which is very much like a Chinese Middlesbrough. If you’ve never heard of Middlesbrough, then you get my point. Needless to say, the girl promptly dumped me for another guy leaving me in a strange city in a foreign country with no friends and a job I hated. I taught in a primary school, and though they were sweet and adorable on the outside, on the inside those kids were the embodiment of evil. They almost broke me. I spiralled into a life of booze, solitude and borderline depression, punctuated only by the occasional bout of meaningless sex. I didn’t think I would survive another Tianjin winter, and overall the place didn’t leave a good impression on me, so I decided to run down my contract at my school and move somewhere else in China. Hopefully, somewhere warmer.

I didn’t want to teach kids anymore, so I found a job as a writing instructor at HMMC (Hunan Mass Media College) in Changsha, Hunan Province, which was about as close to journalism as I could get at the time. I didn’t know anything about Changsha. But by this time I’d learned not to jump into anything blind, so I did some research. Located on the Xiang River, Changsha is described as a ‘culturally important’ city, though not internationally recognized in the same way Beijing and Shanghai are, and has over 3,000 years of history. It was occupied by the Japanese for a short time during the Japanese-Sino war of 1937-45, and is the place where Mao Zedong (Chairman Mao, the revolutionary founding father of the PRC) went to school and converted to communism. These days, it is better known as both a commercial center and an entertainment hub, and is home of Hunan TV, one of the biggest channels in the country which pumps out endless variety and talent shows which the Chinese lap up.

Juliet, a girl I’d met whilst travelling in Shanghai two years earlier, came to meet me the day I arrived and brought a suitcase with her meaning, I assumed, she planned on staying for a while. That was fine by me. I hadn’t seen her for ages, and we had a lot of catching up to do. The very first night, things started getting hot and steamy. While we were kissing and fumbling on the sofa, she asked if I had a condom. I didn’t. But I remembered my contact from the college telling me there was a twenty four -hour supermarket nearby. I didn’t remember exactly where, but how hard could it be to find?

I grabbed a handful of money, ran out the door, down three flights of stairs, out of the apartment block and down the road. It took a while, but I eventually found the supermarket and stocked up on condoms and soft drinks. As I left, I was hit with a realization. I didn’t actually know where I lived. I was completely lost. I’d been so excited about the prospect of finally bedding Juliet that I’d left the apartment without my phone. I didn’t even know the name of my street. I’d only got off the plane about six hours earlier.

So I stumbled around for most of the night clutching a pack of unopened condoms and whimpering softly to myself. I tried to retrace my steps, but found that almost every building looked the same, especially in the dark. I eventually found my apartment again a few hours later but by then, Juliet was sound asleep and the moment had passed. I figured having waited over two years already, another day or two wouldn’t matter too much.

This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom Part 2 – Hunan Province is available now on paperback and ebook

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Amazon UK

Amazon US

 

Forget Booking.com

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Until earlier this year, I’d used Booking.com almost exclusively to book hotels I stay in. I travel a lot, both for work and for pleasure, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I must have used Booking.com over a hundred times, probably spending a couple of thousand in the process. I’d never had any problems with them before, apart from one time in 2015 when I arrived at a hotel I’d booked in Changsha, China, and found they had no record of my booking. Even then, Booking.com just apologised and refunded my money.

Last year, my girlfriend wanted to go to a Hins Cheung concert in Hong Kong. I sprang into action, bought tickets on the black market and used Booking.com to get a room at a place called Minimal Hotel Bazaar for two nights at a cost of 725 HKD. Remember the name, and if you ever go to HK, avoid it like the plague. To cut a long story short, the shit hit the fan in HK. There were mass demonstrations, and the Hins concert was cancelled. My girlfriend and I decided it was too dangerous to go to Hong Kong for no reason, and contacted Booking.com to request our money back. I should say here that I’d booked a non-refundable room, but due to extenuating circumstances we’d heard of other people getting refunds so we thought we’d try our luck.

The hotel refused to give us our money back, but offered to move our reservation to a later date. I agreed, hoping that the hostilities would die down. The later dates were more expensive, coming in at a cost of over 1000 HKD.

When I checked my bank balance, I saw that the hotel had taken two payments. 725 and 1000. I called them, and they said because the first payment failed to clear, they took the second payment. This was complete bullshit. How could the second payment clear but not the first when they charged the same credit card? It was obvious that they were trying to pull a fast one, and either charge me twice for the same room or bill me the higher amount.

I wasn’t having that and contacted Booking.com customer services. They were helpful at first, promised to investigate the matter, and requested screen shots of my bank account showing the transactions Minimal Hotel Bazaar had instigated, which I duly supplied.

And then they stopped replying to my messages.

I called the hotel again several times, but they wouldn’t pick up the phone and all my emails to Booking.com were roundly ignored. Slowly, I came to realize that I’d been screwed. And not in a good way. I went online to leave a review with Trust Pilot, a consumer website, and discovered how bad their reputation has become. In the past few months there has been a slew of one-star reviews with people telling all kinds of horror stories. Their overall rating is now a shameful 1.5 out of 5.

booking

I won’t be using Booking.com any more. They’ve become a fucking joke. Instead, I’ll be using Trivago, their main competitor, and I advise you to do the same.

This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom Part 2 – Hunan Province

British journalist Alex Coverdale has spent over a decade working as an English teacher in China. During that time he has travelled the length and breadth of the country, seeing things he never thought he would see and doing things he never thought he would do, from digging for dinosaur eggs in the Gobi desert to eating snakes in Hunan Province, and finding himself in a succession of awkward, often hilarious situations along the way.

He soon developed a deep affinity with China and its people, falling in love with the country’s unique culture, colourful history, and vibrant, infectious energy. Being in such a unique position, he wrote about his experiences in a book which quickly became a Number One Amazon Bestseller, but he never told the full story.

Until now.

This second instalment of This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom, covers the three-plus years the author spent in Hunan Province, central China, where he travelled in search of love and settled in the provincial capital of Changsha, known for its nightlife and entertainment industry. He found it, and lot’s more besides.

If you have any interest in China, teaching English abroad, or the dynamics of cross-cultural relationships, these books are for you because…

This is China.

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This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom part 2 – Hunan Province is available now on paperback and ebook.

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Go here to see a complete list of the author’s books.

This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom Part 1 – The North (extract)

Shortly after I’d submitted my visa application, the phone rang. On the other end was a very pleasant sounding lady speaking with a choppy Chinese accent who said she was from the Chinese embassy in London, where my visa application was being processed.

“I want to tell you we received your application.”

“Good.”

“Not good. Problem.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

“I sorry to tell you, we unable to grant you visa to come China.”

“What? Why is that?”

“Application say you are journalist. Journalist need special permission from Chinese government to come China. You have special permission from Chinese government?”

“No.”

“Then no come China.”

I knew Chinese authorities are generally suspicious of overseas journalists. They kept their own journalists on a tight leash, but had no such jurisdiction over foreigners and this being in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing they were being especially vigilant, something that had never even occurred to me. In the face of such officious-sounding bullshit, I began to panic. “But I have a job to go to in China, and I’ve already paid for my flights. The tickets are non-refundable. Is there anything I can do?” I asked, more out of hope than expectation.

“Yes. You do new application. Only this time, say you do different job. No journalist. Understand?”

No, I didn’t understand at all. I thought I did, but I must surely be mistaken. “You want me to… lie?”

“No lie. Just say you do different job. No journalist.”

“But I don’t do a different job. So it’s lying.”

“No lying.”

“But wouldn’t it be illegal?”

“Is okay.”

“Well, if you say so.” I still wasn’t convinced, but didn’t think I had much choice other than to do what this lady was suggesting. Even then, there was another problem. “If I submit another visa application, there won’t be enough time,” I protested. “It would take too long to process. I’d have to get new forms, fill them in, and post them back to you. It would require a few days. Plus, you have my passport, so I can’t even do that until you send my passport back.”

“Okay, first option is we keep passport and you come London, fill out form, submit same day. Pay express fee.”

“Is there a second option?”

Of course. You just ask friend to do it for you.”

“What friend?”

“Any friend. You have friend in London?”

“Yes, but won’t the application need my signature on it?”

“Your friend can do it.”

For a country evidently so pre-occupied with following rules and regulations, China seemed to be surprisingly lax in other areas. It didn’t make much sense, but I wasn’t going to question it. I just did what they said and had a friend go to the embassy, fill out another application on my behalf, and forge my signature. Job done. Days later my passport was returned to me boasting a Chinese L visa and couple of weeks after that, I was on a plane to Beijing.

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This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom Part 1 – The North is available now on paperback and ebook.

Amazon UK

Amazon US