It Turns out Even Chinese People Have Trouble Telling Each Other Apart

Having finished my classes for the night at my second job, I’d decided to hang around the training center for a bit and chat with the owner and the woman who manages that branch. We were discussing the different classes and the students in them until I’d started to stumble on some of their names. Let’s face it, 30-40 7 or 8 year old kids a week… I mix some of them up so often it’s shameful. Of course it isn’t just about race; I’m relatively new at the language center and some of the kids only come intermittently, some of them have similar names, and sometimes I’m just plain too tired from working two jobs to remember who is who. But the owner and the manager had realized I didn’t which student was which, and even though I’ll get most of the names down eventually, they didn’t pass up the opportunity to poke fun at me for it. Wary of having put my foot in my mouth, I’d attempted to justify it as anything but what it looked like, only to luck out when they actually started complaining to each other in agreement! They went on about how some of the little boys act like babies when they’re mistaken for a different kid, and how a mother once got really offended when they’d call her kid the wrong name. Baffled by what my two bosses were saying, I couldn’t help but ask them if Chinese people really, actually have trouble telling each other apart.

“Oh yes! All of the students in Shenzhen wear the same uniform. That’s 50,000 kids in each grade wearing the same clothing!! Little girls are easier because of their hair and if they’re pretty or not, but boys are so difficult. All the boys get the same haircut. Every single one! All black hair and the same foreheads too.”

“And if they have the thin face then I can never tell. It’s all one boy to me. Fat boys are easier as long as there aren’t many of them.”

“Once they get old, women look the same too. They wear three types of clothes and that doesn’t help.”

Their rants left me with a stupid grin, because in all honesty I’d had no clue how to respond to any of it except smirkingly nod and try not to come off as the dumb white guy who thinks all Chinese people look the same. The owner concluded to me, “There are just too many people here. It’s hard for all of us. We have trouble with adults too, not just children. I really only know the people who matter.” And if she’s not the only person in China who feels this way, then the indifference for each other that Chinese people are so well known for might be slightly more understandable. While I definitely hadn’t been expecting any of these answers, after having heard all of this I guess I’m not surprised. At my public school I teach 15 classes a week with 55 students in each, and at least once a week I need to double check that I’m in the right classroom after mistakenly recognizing students from a different class. I’d always just figured it was because I was a foreigner.

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At least I’m better than Facebook’s facial recognition software

 

The Most Elaborate Beggar in China

“Ay man, I’m tryin’a get upstate but my bus ticket got stolen. You gonna help me out, right? I just need thirty bucks man, shit’s rough right now and my daughter’s gettin’ married tomorrow. C’mon man, I’d do it for you.”

Anybody who’s lived in an American city knows exactly what I’m talking about, when some random guy slurring his speech tries to play on your sympathies and make some money. You know he’s not gonna be getting on a bus or walking a daughter down the aisle either; the optimist might hope that the cash he’s given will go towards outstanding bills or something else that’s positive, but nobody really believes that…

Very few people actually fall for these sob stories, the majority of them donating solely out of pity, and if you’d thought a bus ticket or a family matter were obvious lies, then how the hell would you react to a camel?!

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A camel rider begging for money in the middle of Shenzhen, China’s fourth largest city. Totally. Fucking. Plausible.

You can imagine how dubious I’d been when I saw the beggar with a camel tied up behind him. I could list all sorts of facts for why this scene was absurd; how the nearest desert was almost 48 hours away by train, how Shenzhen is a coastal, sub-tropical city that a camel would never be found anywhere near, or how this guy and his camel would’ve had to have inconspicuously traveled more than 10 kilometers through the city to get to where they currently were, which just so happened to be right outside of the rich central business district and downtown heart of Shenzhen… but I don’t think any of that is going to be necessary.

Understanding his slurred Mandarin had been completely out of the question, but I’m sure he’d made a great case for himself as he rocked back and forth, periodically shouting and moaning. I like to imagine his sales pitch going somewhere along the lines of; “Ay man, I was coming from the desert and my camel broke his damn toe on Shennan avenue. Can you spare some Mao’s so I can fix him up? His healthy so bad, I’ll give you many thanks.” Scattered along the streets of any city in China are beggars of every shade of dirt and manner of handicap, and while I’ve seen more than I’d cared to in my year and a half here, I’ve never seen this. Burn victims, people with multiple missing limbs, hobo nudity and lude actions, toothless would-be alley prostitutes, men with shrunken bodies and arms shorter than their heads, armless guys on random sidewalks painting for customers with their feet, the occasional drunkard that got his hands on a megaphone, and even a grotesque midget who would chase after people in an attempt to sell them knock off purses; it takes a lot to stop you in your tracks and actually confuse you once you’ve been here awhile, and well… This guy and his companion had managed to. Slack jawed and scratching my head, I’d stood there for several minutes amidst the bustle of commuters, struggling to make sense of this ridiculousness. Judging from the constant looks of shock and the people who’d knocked into each other while rubber necking, I wasn’t the only one either. You know it’s strange when the Chinese even stop to gawk.

"The guy three streets over has a camel. Step your game up and at least get a kangaroo..."

“The guy three streets over has a camel. Step your game up and at least get a kangaroo…”

"OK. That's donatable"

“OK. That’s donatable”

After passing by one an especially unique beggar on street, it’s difficult to stop yourself from wondering¬†how¬†they’d even gotten there in the first place; a beggar who, whether due to crippling deformities or huge desert mammals, couldn’t possibly have moved themselves to wherever they were panhandling on their own. The obvious guess would be with the help of family or friends, but one night in Beijing awhile back, I’d stumbled onto another possibility. Cutting down side streets to get to a popular bar area, I’d rounded a corner just in time to see three younger guys roll a legless old man out of their van and onto a tattered blanket. They’d driven away yelling commands at him, at which he began pulling himself towards the main street. I’d stood there in a mix of shock, confusion and curiosity, watching as this nubby beggar crawled out of the alleyway and onto a busy bar street to shake his cup at the partiers passing by. The street and its bars were full that night, and I’m sure that the bum had made quite a bit even if each person had only given him their pocket scraps.

Several day later and still puzzled by this scene, I’d started asking my coworkers what their thoughts on it were. One of them, a knowledgeable guy from South Africa, told me I’d just confirmed a rumor floating around the expat community. He went on to talk about how most beggars, especially the maimed and deformed ones, are essentially owned and put to work by various criminal organizations, who then take the majority of the earnings for themselves. Thinking back on all of this with what I’d just seen, I’d have to guess that if a camel was in the middle of a sub-tropical city on the opposite side of the continent as it’s natural habitat, then this shady activity is probably going on in Shenzhen as well. There’s really no way to end this on a positive note, so I guess all I can do is offer a hundred RMB to the first guy who gets a gorilla. Now that would be a sight.

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Shakin’, yellin’, and gettin’ that money. Ringling Bros Crew 4 life

An Unexpected Downside of Living in Southern China

You’d think an area that’s hitting 80 degrees or above 8 months out of the year would be a great place to live. For all intents and purposes, Shenzhen is 100% better than what I’d experienced in Beijing; beaches and ocean breezes, cleaner air and better weather than Northern China (not counting the occasional Typhoon of course), greenery and wildlife infiltrating every street, overall higher wages in the ESL industry, and a close proximity to Hong Kong and Macau that ensures some awesome weekend adventures while also guaranteeing a higher degree of civility and manners in the people.

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Shenzhen is an incredibly modern city, and compared to the rest of China it’s more progressive, polite and adaptive. Shenzhen’s rapid growth from a small fishing port of roughly 80,000 people in the 80’s to the 12 million plus metropolis that it is now has had some great advantages, allowing it to have been designed from the ground up and built based on modern ideologies and efficiency, rather than as a reaction to time and growth like so many of the other major cities in China; Beijing is constantly being torn down and rebuilt as it attempts to keep up with the 21st century, trapping the city in a continuous state of half splendor and half dilapidation. For how well Shenzhen’s design and expansion had been planned out, nobody had ever thought to include heating systems in the buildings. But for a city that’s more southern than Florida, you wouldn’t think that it’d be an issue… right? Fuck that. Wrong.

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Look at those beautiful, heaterless buildings

It’s mid February and tonight my apartment is 35 degrees. I’m wrapped in blankets as I write this, shivering and letting out a visible mist with every breath. The toilet had resembled a cauldron when I peed earlier, steam literally rising out of it. Even though the summers here are sweltering and dance around triple digit temperatures everyday, and even though three quarters of the year is T-shirt and shorts weather, what nobody tells you about South China is that 2 months of that same year are bone chillingly cold. Those ocean breezes are no longer your friend, and the combination of low temperatures, lack of heating and high humidity will cut through any clothing and burrow deep into your muscles until they ache. There couldn’t have been a worse way of finding all of this out than having just flown back from touring the balmy South East of Asia. I’d had no way of preparing for this either; nobody packing for the South ever includes winter clothing! To their credit, my Chinese coworkers had tried to warn me it would get cold down here, but because they wear coats when it’s 70 degrees outside, naturally I had ignored everything they said. Since there isn’t a knob or dial in my apartment that raises the heat like anywhere else I’ve ever lived, my only option is to invest in one of the few space heaters that hasn’t sold out yet… if, of course, I can find a way to stomach the price gouging of an item that will be irrelevant by the end of this month. Can I just go back to Thailand?

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Instead of a picture of my steaming toilet, I’ll show you where the frigid death blows in from