Archive | July, 2013

The Return of the Chickens

25 Jul

About three months ago, all residents of Shanghai and east China turned totally psychotic because of the resurgence of the avian flu and its mutation from H5N1 to H7N9. Four of our five friends coming to China were equally worried about the outbreak of the virus and regularly updated us about the number of dead in Shanghai. While we were vaguely following the news, we were not that concerned. As Shanghai residents we were not short of a food or health related scandal. In fact, at this specific time, we had:

  • The resurgence of the avian flu,
  • Tens of thousands of dead pigs in the Huangpu River (Shanghai’s main river). We never got to the bottom of this story,
  • Who knows how many mysteriously dead fish in the Huangpu as well,
  • People had received text messages about rotten beef meat from Suzhou.

And, to make it exhaustive, we should include the permanent air pollution we live in, our friendly neighbour Kim Jong Un then playing about with his nuclear arsenal and threatening to use it and the contamination of the Nongfu Spring water (apparently the most widely bought bottled water in China) with lead. Nevertheless we were trying to re-assure our friends by telling them that you had to be in contact with live poultry to have any chance to get the virus, that even if you ate an infected chicken it would be ok because the virus is killed when you cook the meat above 70 degrees Celsius…

In the meantime, I was secretly planning to avoid taking them on any road where I knew live poultry was sold (Chinese like to buy their poultry and fish live and have it slaughtered on the spot). However, within a week or so, we noticed important changes in our immediate environment. All the loose and caged chickens on the street suddenly vanished. It was as if the whole species became extinct overnight. On our street, the lady who sells vegetables and chickens didn’t have any. My Chinese teacher told me it was increasingly difficult to buy chicken meat anywhere. Where I work in Jiashan Market, we can usually see and hear the poultry live and then be killed at the daily wet market. I arrived one morning at the same time as about 30 policemen, coming to check whether there were any live chickens still being sold. Although I don’t usually tend to panic too much about these things, I have to admit I was reassured to see that there was a certain level of control as I still didn’t want to spend several hours about 10 meters from any live poultry.

April 2013 - Jiashan Market 2

Jiashan Market, some time in April 2013

Jiashan Market, that same day

Jiashan Market, that same day

Our friends’ trip went well, although we did come close to a living chicken somewhere in the countryside near Yangshuo in the south of China, but no one got sick. By now, the whole matter seems to have disappeared from public concerns as well as from local and international media. People consume chicken again and in fact, they are back at Jiashan Market, as if they had never been away, tucked in their usual corner and being slaughtered the good old-fashioned way. And as per all things food and health related, we will never get to the bottom of that story either.

Two days ago also in Jiashan Market

Two days ago also in Jiashan Market

The Cult of the Míngpiàn

6 Jul

There are lots of things to unravel about Chinese culture and not least of them is how to do business and how to interact with your Chinese co-workers. There’s a very delicate balance to respect and much of it can be quite opaque for those of us foreigners coming from a Judeo-Christian background. In the latter culture, borders between yes and no, right and wrong tend to be quite well defined and we generally struggle with the grey areas. In Chinese culture, there’s a lot of grey. To start with, there are no words for “yes” and “no” in Mandarin. It feels like a truism to say this now, after having lived a year and a half in China. If you are asked a question, you would reply using the main verb to signify the equivalent of a yes or a no. For example: – “Are you Lebanese?” – “I am.” Yes and no questions are often asked in a positive/negative mode: “You want you don’t want…?”, “Is there isn’t there…?” but then again, because of the lack of single words for yes or no, you answer: “I want” or “I don’t want”, “There is” or “There isn’t”.

To add to this, Chinese people rarely ever refuse to do something or admit that they don’t know how to do it. Fear of losing face I suppose. So they rush into agreeing or saying ok, ok, ok or kěyī, kěyī, kěyī (i.e. I can, I can, I can) and you have to read between the lines to understand that it’s a no. Many foreigners who have worked here will testify to this. I can see it on my students’ faces. I’d ask them if they’ve understood something and they would always say it’s fine even though I can clearly see their faces decomposing.

We were once explained by our French friend S., whose parents are Chinese, that Chinese attitude and interaction are a question of harmony and maintaining an equilibrium amongst all things present or at stake. Therefore, yes and no positions can be a bit brutal for the contextual balance. (S. please feel free to correct me on this.) After having spent over 5 years in Shanghai, he said he was getting better at navigating within this fragile equilibrium and that got him a lot of satisfaction, as he was being able to draw the best out of his team at work.

All this restraint however blows away when it comes to networking. Then Chinese people can become rather forthcoming whereas we first engage in a bit of small talk before getting into the business side of things. At various events, I have noticed that they spot the slightest opportunity to talk to you and immediately ask who you work for and tell you what it is that they do, without much preliminaries. Essential to this process is the exchange of míngpiàn* or business cards. Some of them have those ready in their hands as they start speaking to you. I say hands because manners here require that you exchange business cards with both hands and that the text on the card is oriented towards the recipient. In turn, the latter should receive the card with both hands and read it duly and respectfully before putting it away. Mingpian are so important that everyone should have one and foreigners have in turn started to refer to them as “name cards” – the literal translation of mingpian – instead of the more correct “business card”.

So next time you do business with Chinese people, make sure both your hands are free and never, ever throw your business card nonchalantly across the meeting table.

* To be pronounced mingpyen

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