Can I Scan Your Face?

I was buying some fruit the other day, and as I got my Alipay barcode ready, the cashier—a young boy no older than 12—turned to me and asked, “Can I scan your face?”

I stared at him in confusion.

“You don’t need your barcode,” he continued. “Just look in the camera right here.”

I was both intrigued and mortified. This felt like an episode of Black Mirror. I put my face up to the black lens.

“Error: This face is not linked to a valid Chinese ID,” the screen read.

“Huh,” the young cashier replied. “I guess it doesn’t work on your face.”

I scanned my barcode instead.

An Ethnocentric View of History

I was at my guqin class yesterday when a new student came in. He’s perhaps in his late-20s, early-30s, and works as a traditional furniture designer. Guqin tends to attract people interested in traditional cultural heritage, so this wasn’t too surprising, but I hadn’t expected to meet students from such diverse professional backgrounds.

As the class wrapped up, our teacher began chatting with him about maintaining cultural heritage. He tends to talk about this to everybody who comes in the door, but being interested in the topic, I kept half an ear on the conversation as I continued practicing.

“I think Japan does a really good job of maintaining culture,” he commented.

Yup. Indeed they do.

“Although,” he continued. “There’s never any innovation. All they do is receive whatever China gives them and they hold onto for centuries. They’re like China’s time capsule.”

I froze. Excuse me?

“What do you mean by that?” our teacher asked.

“Well, take tea for example,” he paused. “They still use powdered tea and prepare exactly how Chinese people did it during the Song dynasty while China has innovated and gone beyond.”

Hold up.

While powdered tea was introduced to Japan during the Song dynasty, the formation of Japanese tea culture happened through a lot of Japanese innovation. There was never such a strongly defined bond between tea and Zen until tea reached Japan, and it never developed such a rustic aesthetic in China (although there was a transformation in the Ming… but that was a shift from powdered to loose-leaf tea).

I realized that this was a common trope I heard repeated over and over again. That China is the source of East Asian culture, and the peripheral states in the Sinosphere were merely recepients of culture, unable to produce a culture of their own.

This was true of my explorations during the Buddhist art expo, where everything was labeled “Tang dynasty style” even if it was a replica of a Japanese-carved statue. It’s also true of other arts that are quite obviously Japanese in origin, such as gold-lacquer repair (kintsugi 金継ぎ). But, I’ve seen videos asserting that it is actually a Chinese art because China had lacquer before Japan had lacquer.

Recently, I’ve come across a few articles in Chinese that argue Japanese tea’s core ideals—wakeiseijaku 和敬清寂—are actually of Chinese origin because the phrase first appears in a Chinese text. Regardless of who actually arranged the text, the phrase definitely never caught on in China, whereas it grew into a life of its own in Japan. That alone needs to be addressed. Furthermore, there needs to be an understanding that two cultures can independently come up with similar if not identical concepts.

This is a troubling trend that stems from ethnocentrism, which is not new to China by any means. While in-group/out-group bias is pretty much universal, I remember a peculiar line that lumped the misfortune of being born in one of the four marginalized tribes (戎夷蠻狄) as being equal to being born blind, deaf, mute, or disfigured.


In any case, the young dude was a brilliant designer who told me little tidbits, like how a traditional table for calligraphy and tea should be 72 cm high. Fun stuff!

Christmas Hunting

Christmas doesn’t exist in China.

In the US, I’m used to hearing Christmas music blasting everywhere, charming lights and decorations adorning every shop, but unfortunately there is no sign of celebration here.

So, feeling a bit in need for some holiday cheer, I went out to find some. As it turns out, if you want to experience Christmas in Fuzhou, there’s only one place: a lavish shopping center named Art Mall.

The signage in the subway made it pretty clear that this was a festive mall.

Being a relatively short walk from the subway station, it featured a welcoming reindeer and outdoor Christmas display. Note—there are no nativity scenes or anything too Jesus-y, probably because there are barely any Christians or Catholics in China.

The mall was completely empty, despite the lavish decorations.

Anyways, Saint Nick was there, and so were his reindeer. And as I entered the mall, the familiar tune of Jingle Bells serenaded me.

Ah, Christmas, I’ve found you at last.

This was part of the decor at one of the uber fancy restaurants.

After a round of browsing the way-too-expensive shops, Ling Min and I went to the library.

Now, I had been to the library before for the sado demo, but I hadn’t really explored the place. Apparently, there was an entire wing for tea books on the eighth floor, and then adjacent to that was a wing for calligraphy books.

Well, I think I’ve found my new home.

I’ll be returning with my laptop and a thermos full of tea to do research. There are way more books on tea in the city library than there are at Fujian Normal.

To wrap up the night, we went to another fancy mall across the street from the library. While not quite as fancy as Art Mall, it was still pretty lavish. Since we were both hungry by then, we decided to get dinner at an American restaurant called Smile. Weird name, but sure, whatever. I hadn’t had American food since coming here, and it seemed like this place was fancy enough to not disappoint.

It didn’t disappoint in taste, that’s for sure.

I got a vegetarian entree, which was essentially just roasted vegetables, but they were prepared really well. I also got a mushroom soup in a bread bowl, which was pretty good too (although the soup could have been a bit warmer).

My vegetarian entree!

While they got the flavor and menu pricing right, the portions they served were definitely not US-sized. I felt kinda ripped off because if I’m paying US prices, I think I should get the quantity I’d typically have in the US. They were definitely serving Chinese-sized portions.

But oh well, it tasted great.

And also, by the end of the meal, I actually wasn’t left hungry. I had expected that it wouldn’t be enough, but the bread + the entree actually filled me up.

I think the creamy soup was what filled me up.

In any case, we went home to prepare for Yongqi’s birthday party, which went well. There were many balloons, a beautiful birthday cake, three bowls of noodles, and two rounds of Uno. We had wanted to play Exploding Kittens instead, but… we had far too many people.

The noodles were good though. Noms.

On our way back, we passed by a small shop that sold soy milk and Teochew cuisine! I’ll be back to see what they have. If I’m lucky, maybe they’ll have cha kueh. Fingers crossed!

Frozen 2

No spoilers here, don’t worry.

So, Frozen 2 came out a few weeks ago, and while I’ve been meaning to watch it, trying to find it in English and in 2D in Chinese theaters was a stupidly difficult task.

Now, that’s not to say that there are no English movies in China. The main issue was that every time Frozen 2 was being shown, it was in 3D.

While that might not be much of an issue to most viewers, I haven’t had the best experience with 3D movies.

My first experience was in Ms. Schubel’s fifth grade class during a field trip to OMSI. Now, I love OMSI just as much as any other young Oregonian elementary school student (and I love that they show anime movies!!!!!), but their state-of-the-art IMAX theater was the highlight of the trip. We would go, see some cool 3D documentary about nature, and then come home well-educated and inspired by the wonders of modern technology.

The movie started, and I was amazed at the surround sound, the expansive view, and the sheer reality of it all.

Then the nausea came.

About 15 minutes in, I couldn’t keep watching, so I closed my eyes and waited until the movie was over. I sat on the bus ride home trying to keep my lunch down. Upon arriving home, I hobbled to my bed and crashed.

I also remember watching—or, failing to watch—The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, also due to issues with 3D nausea. Although, that was back when 3D meant thin red-blue glasses, so perhaps modern technology had corrected that issue.

I then recalled my recent encounter with 3D at the Harry Potter section of Universal Studios. I hobbled off of that ride and sat on the floor in a cold sweat for about 30 minutes before the nausea subsided enough for me to keep walking. But eh, perhaps that was just the ride and not the 3D, I thought to myself.

Given that the only theater offering Frozen in 2D and English was very far away, I decided to risk it. After all, some movies are worth throwing up for.

Well. After watching Frozen 2, I’d say that it wouldn’t be worth throwing up for, but I’ll leave my disappointments and commentary to myself for now.

On the bright side, I was able to get through the whole movie without any sense of nausea! Technology truly has improved.

The Incognito American

Reflecting on my previous post, I can almost always count on people telling me I don’t seem American.

I don’t look American, I don’t sound American, I don’t act American.

Sometimes, this is very helpful in getting to bond with local students and not having them tense up around me. Other times, it leads to extended interrogations on my origins, why I speak Mandarin, and general disbelief in what I’m telling them.

Recently, in another irritating episode, my guqin teacher asked me to be an interpreter for a guqin workshop with foreign dignitaries. This wasn’t an issue for me at all. Having done all sorts of interpretation and translation before, this would be a wonderful chance for me to help with some cross-cultural exchange (one of the aspects of the Fulbright Program) while also giving myself an opportunity to practice interpretation again.

One of the other guqin classmates interrupted us before I could respond.

“Hah!” she cackled. “What makes you think a kid like him can do English interpretation?”

Ever stoic, my guqin teacher ignored her.

“Sure, I’ll do it,” I told him.

“Good,” he replied. “I’ll send you the powerpoint later this week.”

“I don’t know what you see in him,” she shook her head at our instructor. “When’s this event happening? Monday was it? I’ll be there. Let’s see how good this kid’s English turns out to be.”

I don’t recall her being invited.

Our instructor turned over to me, “It’ll be good exposure for guqin. If we want the art to survive, it has to be able to make an impact outside of China. Who knows—maybe one of the dignitaries there will be inspired to support guqin education in the US.”

I nodded and continued practicing.

In this rather aggravating incident, I realized that my latent Americanness led quite a few people to underestimate me, which… is not necessarily a bad thing. I actually enjoy being inconspicuous. What annoyed me was how she immediately dismissed me on basis of age. Even if I had grown up entirely in China (which she assumed), I know plenty of twenty-some-year-olds who are stellar interpreters and translators despite having grown up in a non-English-speaking country.

While my Americanness is constantly questioned (or dismissed) here, I’ve started wondering what it means to be American. While most people here associate a blond-hair, blue-eyed appearance Americanness, an encounter I had in the elevator illustrated that this is a terrible heuristic.

I walked into the elevator. There was a blond woman and a Chinese man present. As we descend, the Chinese man said—in English—to the blond woman, “Happy Thanksgiving!”

“I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving,” she replied.

“Oh,” he looked confused. “Aren’t you American?”

“I’m British.”

I stifled my laughter. Oh, if only it were Independence Day. Wishing a Brit “Happy Independence Day” would truly be too perfect.

Then I realized. He didn’t wish me a Happy Thanksgiving, probably because he assumed I was—like him—a Chinese person who doesn’t celebrate the holiday.

Culturally, a lot of what I do isn’t “American.” I play guqin, not guitar. I write calligraphy with a brush, not a pen. I drink tea, not beer. I admire poems by Li Bai and Wang Wei, not Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson.

But at the same time, that doesn’t necessarily make me Chinese. In fact, when I go out with Chinese classmates, they’re taken aback when I order tea despite everybody else ordering a Budweiser. They find it strange that I’m not acclimated to a Chinese classroom environment, and they find it even stranger when I tell them we had things called seminars which were discussion-based classes.

Having grown up in the US, many of my experiences differ from my Chinese counterparts precisely because of my environment. While I also celebrate the Lunar New Year, Qingming, and Mid-Autumn Festival, these weren’t necessarily identical to how my Chinese classmates celebrate them.

Thinking back to my JET interview, it seems like a lot of cultural exchange tends to focus on how different cultures are so that they seem exotic, fresh, and new to the other. But I disagree entirely with that perspective. Instead, I view cultural exchange as something that can be accomplished through sharing similarities. Rather than talking about football and mass shootings (seriously, these are the two main things people bring up when I mention I’m from the US), I find it much more productive to talk about how Chinese culture has adapted and changed in the US.

I remember vividly my JET interviewer looking wholly unimpressed when I said that I’d bring a calligraphy brush to Japan to show people American culture, but I still stand by that statement. If the US is indeed a melting pot of cultures, I think it’s helpful to show East Asia that their culture is represented in the pot as well. The flavors might have changed (brush lettering is one way of using the brush that Japanese shodo doesn’t have), but it starts at one shared point of culture before branching off into the differences.

Thinking about it some more, I’d bring Cup Noodles as well. There isn’t a better symbol of starving American college student than 10 cent ramen.

While these objects themselves don’t seem American by appearance, they’ve been immersed in American culture and have grown in their own way.

I suppose, in way, I like this approach because I’m like the objects—outwardly Asian, yet with a latent American twist.

A Pleasant Post Office Visit

I had to ship scroll to the US, and honestly I was really dreading another visit to the post office. Memories of stamping postcards and overly personal questions buzzed around in my head.

I got to the post office, but it was closed. Hours were MWF, 2 pm to 5 pm.

What post office has such limited hours?!

I then remembered that there’s another post office nearby, so I walked another few minutes to reach the other office.

I walked in, and an employee in his 30s—wearing a suit and tie—addressed me, “Shipping something?”

“Yup. To the US,” I replied.

“ID please.”

I passed him my passport and he typed my information in.

“Please fill this out,” he said as he handed me the shipping form.

I filled it out as he inspected my scroll.

“No text?” he asked.

“No text,” I replied.

“I’ll see if I can find you a nicer box for this,” he offered.

“Oh thanks!”

He rummaged around as I continued filling out the form. After a few minutes, he came back with my scroll wrapped up in a plastic shipping bag.

“No box, but this will keep it from rolling around,” he said as he put it on the scale.

“That’s fine. Thanks for your help.”

“If you’re not in a hurry, it’ll be about $17 to ship it to the US. Express is going to be around $50.”

“$17 is fine.”

I paid, got my receipt, and left.

What a difference.

The Most Bizarre Post Office Visit

I had to ship things to the US today, and so—after exhausting all online avenues to find out how much it would cost to a 2 kilogram box to the US—I ended up going to the post office (spoiler: there were three options ranging from $20 to $60—I chose the middle option, which cost $30).

Upon arriving at the post office, the employee asked for my Chinese ID card. Being a foreigner, I don’t have one. But she said that a passport would suffice, so I went to retrieve my passport.

Upon arriving with my passport, she handed me a shipment form with a template on how to send packages to the US. Coincidentally, the mock address was Portland, Oregon, USA.

Fortunately, I hadn’t sealed the box yet. After filling out my shipment form, the employee dumped the contents of my box out to inspect my parcels one by one, undoing all of my bubble wrap and foam packaging before exclaiming, “Aha! There’s tea in here.”

“Yes. I know,” I replied nonchalantly. “I declared it on the form.”

She ignored me and proceeded to repackage everything, except without much care or effort. When the arranged boxes didn’t fit (because she didn’t care to put them in the way they came), she resorted to shoving them down, as if the wood would somehow compress like a folded t-shirt.

“Excuse me,” I interjected. “The boxes are flipped so they won’t fit. If you’ll just let me do it—”

“No, if you touch this box, I will have to reinspect it again,” she declared.

“But—the lid on that one isn’t even on all the way. That’s why it’s not balanced.”

“No, it’s on.”

She taped the box shut. Alas, I hope my bubble wrap will protect its contents.

Then came the questioning, “How’d you get a US passport? You don’t look American.”

“I’m an American citizen,” I replied.

“Like, you have a green-card?” she prodded.

I didn’t think this line of questioning was necessary or even appropriate.

“No… I’m a natural-born citizen,” I answered.

“Oh, so your parents immigrated,” she assumed. “Must have been rich.”

They were actually dirt-poor, and my dad was a refugee, but she didn’t need to know that.

“So what do they do?” she asked. “What line of business?”

“My dad’s retired,” I answered, which probably sounded better than “my dad used to work for a grocery store before it closed and my mom washes dishes at the juvenile detention center.”

“Ah, so your brother’s handling the business.”

“I’m an only child.”

“Interesting…” she paused for a moment. “Your family must have some serious sources of passive income.”

I mean, if you count social security as passive income, my dad’s rolling in the dough with his monthly check in the mail.

“Can you tell me how much my shipment will cost?”

She ignored my question, “You don’t look American at all.”

I sighed in exasperation. The bell rang. I had been standing in the post office for an hour, half of which had been spent answering overly-personal questions.

“So, can you tell me how I can get a US visa cheaply and quickly?”

“Dunno. I’ve never had to apply for one.”

“How much money does it take to buy a green card?”

“Dunno. I’ve never had to buy one.” (I also don’t think that’s how the green card process works…)

She suddenly changed the topic, “I don’t think you’re American. You speak Mandarin too fluently to be American.”

“Foreign language classes exist.”

“Yeah, but look at all the people learning English here. They don’t sound like Americans no matter how long they learn the language. But you! You sound like you’re from Guangdong or something.”

She was close. My ancestors were from Guangdong, and I have to admit that my Mandarin does feature a distinct Cantonese-Teochew accent.

“So, the package?” I asked again.

“Can you stamp these for me?” she pulled out a stack of postcards and handed me a sheet of stamps.

I started processing them as she finally began typing in the details for my shipment. As I stamped them, I realized how bizarre this whole situation was. Why was I suddenly doing her job? Not that I minded, but still, it felt really weird.

“I don’t know how to type lower-case letters on here,” she told me.

“All caps is fine,” I replied. (Aren’t lower-case letters the default?) I glanced at her keyboard. She definitely had her caps lock on.

“Do you want this to be shipped via air, sea, or a mid-option?” she asked.

“How much do they each cost?”

“Uhhhhh. Not sure,” she replied.

“Can you give me the cost first so that I can make an educated decision?”

“Hang on a moment.”

A few more minutes passed.

“It’ll be $60 by air, but that’s quickest—it’ll get there maybe in a week or so? And then it’ll be $20 by sea, but there’s no telling when it’ll get there. And then there’s the middle option for $30, which will get there within the month.”

“Let’s do the middle option. Can you also get me a tracking number?”

She typed a few notes into her computer and gave me a slip with the tracking number.

“So… why do people choose to study abroad in the US? Isn’t it expensive?”

“Yup,” I replied. “Very expensive. Student debt is terrible.”

“You’re making a good decision to study in China. I’m sure it’s cheaper. We should charge you foreigners more.”

Most international students here actually receive full-ride scholarships and stipends from the Confucius Institute, but I didn’t bring that up.

“It’s such a hassle to get a student visa to go to the US too,” she returned to her earlier point. “You sure you don’t know an easier way to get one? Somebody to talk to?”

I was confused. Did she genuinely think I had some secret way of getting US visas? I entertained the idea of telling her to stand at the embassy door and press up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-B-A-start. If the Konami code worked to unlock secrets in video games, perhaps it would unlock the secrets she needed to get her visa. “Nope, I have no idea how to get a visa to enter the US.”

“Any friends in Guangzhou that might? I know the consulate is there.”

Coincidentally, I’m actually going to meet up with some people from the consulate later this week. But, I haven’t actually met anybody yet, so my answer was no. I don’t have any friends in Guangzhou.

“Why does it say here you’re living in the dorms?” she suddenly exclaimed.

I was confused again. I had written that down at the beginning. Did it suddenly occur to her that I live on campus? “Because I live in the dorms.”

“But you’re American!”

My headache grew, and I could feel my brain cells dying. The screech of my receipt being printed didn’t help my throbbing head.

“What does that have to do with living in the dorms?”

“International students live in dorms?”

“Where else would they live?”

“Dunno,” she glanced at the freshly printed receipt. “Are the dorms nice?”

“They’re not bad.”

“So how’d you get to live in the dorms?”

“I was assigned a dorm. I didn’t have to do anything special.”

“We should charge more for dorms too…” she muttered as she handed me my shipping receipt.

She looked like wanted to try her hand at a few more questions, but since I now had a receipt in-hand, I excused myself and bolted out the door.

After a bizarre afternoon, I am now back in my dorm drinking some tea. Ah, it is a wonderful cure for headaches.

Cyber Monday

For those you back home in the US, Cyber Monday has yet to come. But in China, November 11 marked a day of online deals.

My list this year was not particularly expensive compared to years past. Granted, in the US I would have gone straight for electronics, which tend to be pricy. While I had considered getting a smartphone, I decided that there was no need. Albeit slow, my cell phones both work (my usual phone turned out to be locked into the T-Mobile network, so I’m using a cheap one I got in Taiwan a few years back for mobile data and calls).

Instead, I went on Taobao (essentially the Chinese version of Amazon), and filled my shopping cart with goods.

I went shopping in-person as well, opting to spend my Monday at the tea mall I had visited before. When the day was done, I had purchased—either online or in-person:

Three books on tea
Two books on calligraphy
Two kilograms of tea leaves
Two teapots
One desk
Two table runners
And quite unexpectedly, four and half tatami mats.

While I hadn’t intended to purchase the tatami mats, the price went lower, and lower, and lower. And to seal the deal, the store also threw in two free cushions.

I don’t think my room actually has enough area to lay out all of the mats unless I remove some furniture, but it was a very good deal. At the very least, I can ship them to the US and it’d still be considered cheap.

Research has picked up recently, and as more books come in, I’m getting a better idea of how different authors are contributing to and building a contemporary tea culture. In addition to tea research though, I’ve dabbled a bit in guqin research—both in deciphering old qin tablature and in reading scholarly articles on guqin history. I’m honestly surprised to see that barely anything has been done on the intricacies of guqin music theory or the role of music in Chinese philosophical discourse.

In terms of my main research project, guqin as a culture serves as a particularly interesting foil to tea culture. It’s diverse, separated into regional schools; it’s writings are intensely theoretical, unlike tea’s more practical writings; and it has a very explicit connection to self-refinement.

In some ways, guqin reminds me of martial arts. It’s regionally defined, and there’s an explicit master-disciple relationship (which isn’t necessarily true with tea).

As I near the 1/3 mark of my ten months in China, I feel increasingly confident that I’ll return with worthwhile experiences. If anything, I’ve learned more than I had expected to learn with guqin, and I’ve had the fortune of meeting more tea experts than I had ever dreamed of prior to arriving in Fuzhou.

Edit: I wrote this on November 11. Since then, I’ve gotten more tea, a stove, some incense, and all sorts of other stuff.