Bu dong

I’ve heard a few foreigners teaching English or French in China say: ‘My students are really dumb. They’re so passive. They never take an initiative.’ After teaching my first classes in China, I realised, indeed, that many students hated inductive hands-on learning methods. I would try to make them guess the meaning of a new word or describe a grammatical rule from an example I gave. Most of them stood silent; some entered a kind of error mode, where they just repeated ‘bu dong, bu dong, bu dong’ – ‘I don’t understand’.

It doesn’t take much to find out, these students were not stupid: they were terrified. Terrified of saying the wrong thing; terrified of guessing meaning, rather than memorizing and repeating. My intuition was confirmed in practice. I decided I would acknowledge their terror – rather than deny it. I strove to create a safe space, by mocking my own approximate Mandarin, and explicitly repeating that, yes, it was terrifying to learn a new language, and guess the meaning of a new word. It worked, I had nodding heads, first, and after a few weeks of extreme psychological cushioning, a class of smart, enthusiastic and funny students. The same who repeated ‘bu dong, bu dong’, were guessing meaning – and often got it right!

They were able, but it was not their spontaneous way of going about it. The Chinese way of learning is based on reproduction and repetition. There is a reason, beyond ideology: how else would you learn the characters? Most languages are transcribed alphabetically: a series of 20 to 30 signs is enough to reproduce all the sounds of the spoken language. Therefore, once a speaker has mastered them – and it’s not very long – they can start writing, and reading, and arguing. Not so with Chinese: each ‘unit of meaning’ – a syllable with a particular tone – corresponds to one character. There is no simple and diret relation between a character and the word it represents. Characters have to be learnt, through repetition and imitation. Before exploring individual thinking, people must go through the long and slow process of learning from the past.

This doesn’t mean Chinese people are incapable of verbal creativity. Chinese has developed sms abbreviations, like the funny ‘3q’ – read ‘san kyu’, using the Chinese word for ‘3’, ‘san’ – for thank you. But, traditionally at least, personal expression was more about embodying tradition in a particular way, than breaking away with it. The ultimate expression of this would be calligraphy. Calligraphy is an art of self-expression, achieved through the written interpretation of chracters on paper. Expression – the self – is not about making something our of nothing. It is about embodying what you received in a certain way; it is about relating to your own tradition.

Gernet, reflecting on the work of Chinese philosopher Wang Fuzhi, says China is about commentary and slow deformation, when the West is about Debate and frontal opposition. One particular expression of this is how historical writing form an important part of the Chinese canon of Classics – unlike the West, where fiction and philosophy dominate. The Chinese way of reasoning starts from the particular, from what happened, rather than what may be. History matters more than fiction. Is it still the case today? And how much does that inform the ‘Chinese worldview’? Also, how much do we foreigners need to know about Chinese history, before we can really start discussing and debating with Chinese people – rather than repeat ‘bu dong, bu dong’ – I don’t understand China? Comments are welcome!

Lao Wais

Everyone agrees, Tianjin is harder for a foreigner than Beijing and Shanghai, because you’re always the only lao wai (foreigner) around. Beijing has expat enclaves in San Li Tun and HouHai; Shanghai has the French concession – they won’t even answer in Chinese at the Gloria Jeans Coffee there. In Tianjin, staff at Starbucks often struggle to understand ‘expresso’. But I discovered a different form of multilingualism here, when I saw the restaurant menu was written in both Chinese and Japanese.

I actually had one of my most important Asian ‘haha’ moments at a Tianjin supermarket, around a similar discovery. I saw an ‘imported food section’, and went there looking for pesto, vine leaves and nutella. Instead of that, I found a bag of dry tuna flakes, wasabi and sake. It took me just that little moment to realise – that was imported food as well.

So, as a game, I started spotting traces of Japan and Korea. And I tried to experience them as multiculturally exotic (as much as Italians are in Australia). With my little eye, I spotted platters of sushi in a supermarket.

‘Japanese dinnering’ in Magnetic City

Some Korean beauty place inside a shopping mall.

And on NanLuoGuXiang, in Beijing, a Japanese everything cool shop.

I noticed an interesting phenomenon: many places with Japanese or Korean writing were not in traditional East Asian style, but superficially Euro-international, following a kind of cute-eurotic aesthetics, like that ‘Cafe Alice’.

The best example would be the ‘Austrian style’ shopping steet of Magnetic City, around the E-Mart Centre – a Korean development in faux Austrian style, with a bubble tea shop, a Lotte supermarket, and fake flowers hanging from hooks, along the faux-lattice wood facade.

Am I really the only lao wai around, I started wondering? Or are these “Asians” around me just as displaced as myself?

The place started bringing back me this quintessential Australian experience, on my first trip, at Box Hill central, when I saw two red-hair girls passing in school uniforms, sipping bubble tea from a plastic cup, smiling at an Asian family sitting there. Maybe, local Tianjiners who saw me queuing behind a Korean teenager at the bubble tea counter in the Austrian style city would experience a similar sense of eur-asianism and global citizenship?


In general, it works both ways. China’s exotic for Europeans. Europe’s exotic for Chinese people – often in a somewhat undiscriminate way, same as we pack together Vietnam, Thailand and Japan under the label ‘Asian.

Still sometimes, the results of that Euro-drive can be surprising – like that weird affection for all things German in Tianjin: German products and German bars on 1902 street, German beer stalls outside JinWan plaza or, even stranger, the ‘Golden Hans’ bar in the Tesco centre.

One particularly interesting manifestation of this exoticism is linguistic. Not so much the famous ‘Asian-English’ on signs, t-shirts and stationery (my favourite was a girl wearing ‘panda, panda, I love to cuddle the cute animals’). But rather, the relatively well written, yet weirdly kitsch sentences about happiness and freedom, like this one on the walls a PingAnJie concept cafe – fashion shop.

Sometimes, the foreign word is a commercial argument in itself – like ‘c’estbon’ water (literally, ‘it’s good’) – made in China, with added French glam.

Sometimes, a touch of euro-language can glamour up a whole room – like this Italian wisdom clock from a design shop in 798 district.

Or sometimes, it’s just a spray of Greek alphabet on a black wall which, somehow, will appeal to the customer – conjuring up a dream of classic elegance, romaticism and sophistication.



It is always enraging when you see someone bluntly missing opportunities.

I was having lunch with Keanyen at a middle-eastern restaurant in SanLiTun, ‘Bite-a-pita’. The food was nice, and the place OK, though it was in one of these sleazy SanLiTun expat dens.

Our waitress-in-a-pink-top had a beautiful smile, and an engagin, open, friendly attitude. I though she was ozzie – she was. Her teacher-parents had lived with her in Indonesia first, then Singapore, now Beijing. She had just graduated from high-school, and she was going back to Brisbane in December.

She was a real pleasure to talk to, and I thought, wow, smart girl, four years in Singapore, six in China – she’s gonna rule Queensland Uni.

But when I asked her, she said she didn’t really speak Chinese. ‘I didn’t take Chinese at school’, she explained, ‘the level’s just too high here, so I took French instead, I mean, I needed good grades for uni, and it was just too much.’ So the smart girl, 6 years in China, 4 in Singapore, doesn’t really speak Chinese, cannot read or write it at all.

‘I’m really glad I can work here,’ she said, about her waitering job at bite-a-pita  ‘it’s a great experience, it’s really gonna help me get a job, when I go to Brisbane.’

Sure is. More so than fluent Chinese, right? Who needs it in Australia.

World Music

I’ve been exposed to a lot of Chinese music these days – most of it in taxis, but also cafes and restaurants. Interestingly, I discovered that the concept of ‘world music’ as cool has come to Tianjin.

There is a little underground cafe, in the XiaoBaiLou gallery. I sat there one morning for about an hour, sipping on my cup of ‘charcoal cofeee’ (which was a sort of slightly sour latte – 10 kuai).

I was reading a book, and not paying much attention to the music, but then I heard it was no longer Chinese. A woman’s voice was repeating ‘aligato, aligato’. I started listening: international selection. Japanese, Chinese, then Italian, and even a French song. All in the ‘So Frenchy so chic’ international lounge style, in line with the minimal-cute East Asian aesthetics of the place.

A few days later, I heard a man’s mobile phone ringing – a brazilian tune: ‘voce voce… cançao, cançao’. Judging on the man, there was even something slightly daggy about it…