Sunday, May 14, 2006

Peace Frog
One of the small blessings of relocating from my old Lucky Number abode in Shenzhen to our current, newer and less-crowded apartment complex were the frogs. Designed by some Chinese architect's idea of a Venice canal theme, there are tiny quasi-canals and lots of foliage within which until recently one could hear the sonorous boom, blatt, belching and occasional melodic croaking of frogs within the greenery.
At night sitting on one of the tiny benches outside the entrance to No. 5, I'd simply soak it all in. The acoustics are such that the exotic booms and belchs would echo a moment, sometimes so much so that one couldn't distinguish between real-frog and echo-frog.
But the residents complained. "They hate the noise," C said. She maintained a neutral stand on the frogs, at least when talking with me, but I sensed she secretly sympathized with her Chinese neighbors. She is vocal however about mosquitos. She hates and fears them and treats a single bite as one otherwise might react to being mauled by sack load of rabid ferrets.
"Frogs eat mosquitos, you know," I said. "They help control the mosquito population."
"Then why are there still mosquitos?"
"There'd be a lot more if it weren't for the frogs. And even less if the management here cleaned out the standing water in these fake canals once in awhile."
I've found that basic science, biology and general environmental cause and effect/circle of life stuff is foreign to most of the average Chinese I've encountered. At least our western ideas about these things. They do have a concept of environmental/health cause and effect -- just not anything we learned in junior high science.
To whit: She and other young, college educated Chinese women I've talked with firmly believe that going outside with wet hair - whatever the temperature -- will make one ill. It gets worse, though. C believes (because her mother told her) that going outside with wet hair will ultimately cause senility. She also believes that sleeping with her legs uncovered while the air conditioner runs will cause her bones to "get soft."
There' s also the belief that after a woman gives birth she will run the risk of becoming gravely ill if she washes her hair before 30 days is up. This one I've heard from women of child bearing age in both Shenzhen and Hong Kong.
Then there's the whole "hot" and "cold" food thing, something I don't even pretend to understand though it's based on a concept of balance like yin/yang, Sonny/Cher, Keef/Mick, J.Lo/Ben, Cheney/Rumsfeld/Satan. It's not hot and cold like we think of temperatures or spices. Each food is imbued with a mystical "hot" or "cold" property - bananas are "hot", watermelon and chicken is "cold" and, for instance, if C drinks more than one can of herbal tea daily it will make her stomach "cold" and give her pimples. Or leprosy. Or cause a crippling stroke when she's 78.
So the idea of frogs as natural mosquito controllers was as nonsensical to her as "hot" bananas was to me. Saturday night I noticed the frogs were silent. Sunday C was buying mosquito repellant devices while outside some apt workers without masks were busy spraying the bejeezus out of the bushes and shrubs as small children frolicked in the chemical mist while their parents chatted oblivious to the insecticide their offspring were absorbing.
"They killed the frogs last week," C said. "There are still mosquitos."
"You mean 'more' mosquitos," I said. "Why else would they be spraying?"
"Maybe the manager's office has a cousin or important connection who has a spray company," she replied. On that she's probably right.
But I miss the frogs and fear a little for those kids.
Don't worry J. You're not alone! Even here on the other side of the world, you can find at least one who sympathises with you.

You earlier told me about the wet hair/illness thing, but I dismissed it as being an individual thing, and not an all-Chinese one of that. But now I know better. Even though my wife never told me about that one (I dare not write superstition, so I write "one" instead) in specific, she did, however, tell me about the 30 day of no hair wash after giving birth. I thought I was alone with that new found knowledge. Just to underline she also has a freakish fear of mosquitoes, so now I start worrying. :-)
It gets much worse. I asked many people in Shenzhen - all with 4-year university degrees - why trees are green and the sky is blue. None knew. When I explained that flowers are how plants have sex, the reaction was utter disbelief. When I asked why plants should make flowers - whether they could offer an alternative explanation - my mainland interlocutors stated that it was simply the season for them to do that (i.e. there is no reason; cause and effect have instantly become quaint irrelevancies, and the world is blissfully simple). Needless to say, they also see no connection between flowers and fruit. Moreover, many women with a university education in China don't know why they themselves menstruate. They don't know their own anatomy - I don't just mean 'down there', I mean they couldn't locate their own kidneys or liver, not to mention their spleen or pancreas, even using the Chinese words. They don't know what blood does, which is to say they also don't know why it's red. They don't know why someone should die if s/he were to cease breathing. I could go on, and I will. What they do learn in school, they simply memorize with little comprehension: viz. they cannot explain the difference between a solid, liquid and gas (forget about plasma). Typical answers would be something like "oxygen is a gas" (no, it's an element, and when it's put under pressure or for that matter bonds with hydrogen to form water, it's a liquid). They cannot explain the difference between mass and weight. Don't even get me started on biology - all primates are monkeys (except for us, thank goodness for that) and ducks & chickens are not birds - they're livestock (apparently mutually exclusive categories in China). Need I mention they don't know evolutionary theory? Heck, they don't even know Linnean classification. Given a map of Europe, the average university-educated mainland Chinese is lucky to correctly identify one country (I once pointed to the UK and was told it was Switzerland).

However, they do know with certainty that "O Susanna" (as in, "I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee") is a Chinese song (well, it is sung in Chinese....) and that China has 5,000 years of history. It's like a country full of US Senators (remember that infamous line "If English was good enough for Jesus Christ it's good enough for me"?).

End of rant. Some of that has been a blog entry in my head for some months now. Glad to see I'm not the only one suffering mental anguish.

take care Justin, and thanks as always for the read - you always manage to stake out a position in the middle of the currents where pain and pleasure mix....
Herein lies the utter insanity of Chinese culture. Meaning, there's the part of China that is fascinating and wonderful. Then, there is this belief system and way of doing things that is so completely the opposite of western thought. It makes the West look at China as if it was a nation of little children, just beginning to make their way in the world, with their funny, nonsensical ideas about science and such.

My girlfriend had this thing about how drinking cold beverages (like cold soda and cold water) was really, really bad for you. She's an intelligent young woman, but her re-education is proceeding slowly. I remember telling her, "The western world bases its ideas on fact and science. China bases its ideas on superstition and god knows what."

On my last trip to China, I became very ill. I had left the air conditioner on all night and, by the next afternoon, I was running a very high fever. Suffice it to say, none of my bones were softer than normal. Anyway, I was taken to the hospital in the middle of the night. I told my girlfriend, "Don't let them give me any of that Chinese medicine!" No snake scales and dried up weeds for me. Thankfully, they gave me antibiotics. Oh, and a glucose drip, which is, I guess, a Chinese cure-all. But I supposed that was all right. By the next morning, I was feeling a-okay.

All in all, though, I guess we should cut the Chinese some slack. I mean, they've only had 5000 years to become a "developing" nation. Right?
First let me say I really missed you when you went on hiatus for a few days sometime ago. I am glad to see you back with regular entries.

As for the superstitious nonsense the Chinese are not alone. I spend my first 20 years of live in Germany and due to my parents I believed the following: never go out with wet hair, you will get a cold; never drink water for at least 2 hours after you eat fruits; after eating on is not allowed to go swimming, one has to wait at least 2 hours. That's the ones I remember, I violated all and thats way I am a 63 year old, old fart and my health is excellent :)

Cheers Fred
Glad to see I hit a nerve of some sort out there. Thanks to all for your comments.
Fred, I also grew up firmly believing the don't-swim-until-2 hours-after-eating edict. I think I was about 17 when I realized it was hooey. Slow learner...
And du yisa, yeah, your comments about the basic ignorance regarding animals used to lead to some impassioned disagreements within the editorial conference room at the Shenzhen Daily.
As you may know (heh) they love to print cutesy animal and lovely flower pictures. Former foreign barbarian coworker Jeff (who knows flowers well, my learning curve dives drastically after "rose," "lily" "tulip" and "dandelion") and I would try often fruitlessly to explain why a photo caption of an orangutan sniffing at a lily was not "A monkey (or 'gorilla' or 'chimpanzee' if they were really striving) admiring a carnation" was simply wrong.
Great entry.. especially the total disregard for the kids' health. My students are always very confident that Chinese people love kids more than Western people (who do not really love kids at all). But I have never seen a kid perched on the back of a bike wearing a bike helmet and I very rarely see a bike with a light. I sometimes ask my students why bike riders don't use lights. `We can see where we're going' they say. The idea that the light is for other people (cars and buses in particular) to see the cyclist has never occurred to them.

Du Yisa, I’ve been told from time to time that ducks can’t fly, but not that they’re not animals. But I’m fascinated by what you say about flowers. I’ll have to try that out in class.
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