This week Tina and I went for a full-body massage.  I'm not a huge fan of massages (unless Tina gives them ;-) but it was a nice time to get out of the house and spend some time together.  After the massage, Tina decided that she wanted to get the fire-cupping treatment.  If you don't know what that is, it's when the masseuse takes spherical glass cups, uses fire to burn away all of the oxygen inside, and then places it on your skin.  Since there is no oxygen in the cup, it sucks your skin into the cup, kind of like a continuous hicky.  They leave the cup on there for a few minutes and then remove it.  What remains are dark circles where the blood vessels broke.  This treatment is meant to remove the body's impurities, especially if one is retaining too much water or fire.  The darker the circle, the more you needed the treatment.

Tina gets this done every once in a while, and I think it really works, because the areas where she feels the most pain usually yield the darkest circles, and she feels much better afterward.  In my 5+ years in China I'd never tried it, so this time when she decided to get it, I thought why not me too.  It's better than sitting around waiting for her to finish, so we ordered a round of fire cups for both of us.  Here is the result.
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I'll be carrying this unique pattern on my back for the next few weeks.  And as you can see, I really needed it, even though my body wasn't feeling bad at the time.  Some of the circles are so dark, they obscure the tattoo beneath it.  It was definitely uncomfortable though not unbearable, and my back still feels a bit tender a few days later.  Kind of like a sunburn.  At any rate, it's not often that I get to try something new so chalk this up to another China experience.  Now if I can just muster up the courage to try acupuncture....
 
 
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My wife will give birth to our baby in late August, and it's been an interesting seven months so far.  A few minor scares here and there, but for the most part, it's been pretty smooth.  That's easy for me to say,though, since I'm not the one with constant back pain and swollen feet :-).  I've tried to be very sensitive and attentive to her and I can tell that I've made her feel very secure and even beautiful during this fragile time.

One thing that I am continually thankful for about my wife is her emotional balance.  Yeah she's a girl and all girls get emotional now and then, but compared to girls I've dated before, my wife has a very good handle on her emotions.  Of course, pregnancy brings the hormone onslaught and it's easy for an even-keeled woman to go all loopy, but I've fortunately been spared any tempestuous outbursts of mama-bear fury :-).

Yet one emotional battalion that takes a serious hit during pregnancy, especially for beauty-conscious Chinese girls, is confidence.  Of course I've always told my wife she's beautiful, and before she was pregnant, she believed it, but as the kilograms start to add up, now she needs much more reassurance, especially with my job as a university teacher surrounded by slender (and very hormonal) students.  In China, husband's infidelity is unfortunately a cultural fixture, and my wife tells me that several of her friend's husbands strayed while they were pregnant.  My wife doesn't expect that I would follow the same path, but at the same time, she's a girl, and girls' minds are a whirlwind of doubts and worries.  Actually, to be honest, my wife is still pretty freakin' hot compared to the other pregnant ladies waddling around, and any man who cheats on his wife while she's at her most vulnerable, such as during pregnancy, must be the most wretched scum alive.  But even still, I continually remind my wife that she's still beautiful and still the apple of my eye as I massage her swollen feet, and I know she believes me.

 
 
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For most Chinese people, owning a home is an extreme priority (though "owning" really means "a 70 year lease from the government.")  In the West, owning a homeis a big priority, though not essential.  In the Western mentality, houses are for owning, apartments/flats are for renting.  And since there are very few houses in China, most Westerners are happy to rent when they come to China to live, even if they're going to be here for a long, long time.

A few months after my wife and I got married in February 2009, we decided it was time to buy a home.  I was well aware of the Chinese inclination (read: obsession) with home ownership, and this is actually a valid perspective in China, where distrust and paranoia of being cheated reign supreme, and no one wants a landlord literally lording over you.  I was also aware of the huge responsibility and cost that comes with purchasing a home.  But we decided to take the plunge nonetheless, and so far, I'm glad we did.

For one thing, it makes my wife very happy, and happy wife=happy life :-).  But seriously, women crave stability, particularly in China, and while my wife isn't like the hordes of money-minded materialistic sirens prowling around, having a home to call your own is a big relief. 

Another reason is the investment opportunity.  We live on Xiamen Island for the time being while we're waiting for our new home to be constructed, but our new home is outside the island, on the mainland.  This means its drastically cheaper and quieter than if we had purchased a home on the island.  It's still only a 45 minute bus ride and if we get our own car, a 20 minute ride back to the island, which is the hub for Xiamen's shopping, restaurants, and nightlife.  There are several shopping centers, parks, etc. around where our new home is, but it's still mostly countryside.  But that is actually what we would like, since Xiamen Island is quickly becoming too crowded.  Right now, the home we are renting is right next to Zhong Shan Road, Xiamen's top tourist hot spot, and while the convenience is nice, the crowds and traffic is not.

So, back to the investment opportunity.  As I said, our new home is waaay cheaper than on the island.  It's on the 21st floor, 90 sq. meters, two bedrooms/one bath, looking out to the sea, though there are some industries and businesses around the building, but no smoke stacks or pollution.  It's also right across from a yet-to-be-finished bridge that will let me zip over to my university in about 15 minutes.  All this for 2990 RMB/sq. meter.  That's right.  We put down our deposit in May 2009, and already it has appreciated to over 4200 RMB/sq. meter.  As I said before, it's still in the countryside, but there are several developments and apartment complexes going up around it, so in the next 3-5 years, that area will probably be a decent suburb of Xiamen.

Now I often have people asking me about the process of buying a house, so let me share my experience.  My wife and I are quick decision-makers, and we were lucky enough to find this home that suited us, was in a good location, and had a great price, so we jumped right in.  The down payment was a bit of an expense, and we used my wife's savings for that, since I had drank, shopped, and traveled away most of my money in my three previous years in China *looks sheepish.*  I chipped in a bit though too.  The law stated that if a house is under 90 sq. meters, then the down payment is 20% of the total house value, if over, then it's 30%.  Our home came to around 89.40 sq. meters so we just bared squeaked in at the 20% mark.

Getting the loan from the bank was a bit of a nail-biter, since my wife didn't have a job, but we couldn't tell the bank that I, her husband, did have a job and was therefore capable of repaying the bank, since the bank wouldn't give her the loan if they knew that we were married.  The reason is that the bank would be naturally squeamish about loaning money to a Chinese person with a foreign spouse, since the couple could easily take the loan, make their purchase, and then zip off to the foreigner's home country, leaving the bank empty-handed.  But since my wife also owned a small storefront that she rents out, the bank saw her as low-risk (and still single), so they granted the bank loan to her at a fixed interest rate. 

I thought this was interesting but understandable.  From what I hear, foreigners can only own one piece of property in China, usually a factory or other business.  I'm a teacher, not a businessman, so I don't need to worry about this, but without something significant tying me to China, the bank wouldn't give her the loan, so we needed to keep our marriage under wraps.

So now we've got a ten-year mortgage at a fixed rate, and the payments are quite reasonable, only about 20% of my monthly income.  My wife doesn't work (her current job is incubating our little bundle of joy, due to arrive in August).  The construction should be finished in July of this year, but all we're really getting is an empty concrete box.  We have to take care of all the interior design ourselves, which is what we're saving up for at the moment.  We expect to move to our new home by next summer.  All in all, it's been a relatively low-stress situation, and I really feel that we got lucky.  I would encourage other married foreigners to purchase homes outside of large cities, since urban areas are severely over-priced, though this could change quickly.  Suburban homes tend to be quieter, less expensive, and the appreciation will probably be less erratic than city homes. 

I think purchasing a home is a good idea, especially if you're going to be in China for the long haul and plan to have a family here.  My wife and I expect that we'll stay in China until it's time for our child to begin his/her education, and a Western education is definitely the better choice- can I get an "Amen."  But even while we're gone, we can rent our home, and we'll always have a home to come back to.

In unrelated news, I haven't gotten a new tattoo in several months, so I went to the beach and got sunburned to get that peeling and itching feeling that I know and love so well.  Just thought I'd share.

 
 
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This week, I've been encouraging students to stay away from overused words, such as "beautiful," "delicious," etc.  One word that is heard all too often is "cute."  Cute is an integral part of Chinese society, as well as many other East Asian countries.  There are cartoons everywhere, on refrigerators, public buses, and noodle packaging.  Girls try to find the balance between innocent and sexy, and the result could best be described as "cute."  Birthday cakes, picture frames, umbrellas... everywhere you look, there's something cute.

A large amount of my time is spent around students, who are of course immersed in the culture of "cute."  And this is all fine and good, but it gets a bit overwhelming at times. The other day, a male student was wearing a neon pink shirt and matching neon pink glasses.  In a bid to out-do the effeminate male Korean pop stars flooding the airwaves and magazines, China's Super Boy singing competition program has become a parade of the "cutest" (translation: cross-dressing) boys the country has to offer.  I see semi-pimped-out rice rockets buzzing down the road, sporting Japanese cartoon decals.  And while I certainly have no problem with cute girls, I constantly see middle-aged mothers prancing around the shopping malls wearing the same tu-tu inspired fashions that my students wear.  Granted, they usually have the figures to pull it off, but there's nothing wrong with dressing with a stylish yet mature sensibility.

Every culture is obsessed with youth, but I think China takes it to another level, where many people lack education or skills to set themselves apart from the rest of the masses, but youth and beauty are always in fashion.  My students tell me that they don't want to grow up, that they wish they could always remain boys and girls.  Maybe this culture of cute is a way to retain that youth, even though the mirror is telling you otherwise.  I dunno, maybe my Western mentality is too testosterone-driven, and I have come to appreciate "cuteness" more since living in China, but when I see billboards with cartoon policemen telling me not to drink and drive, I feel like I'm in kindergarten.

 
 
I confess: I love skulls.  Maybe it's too much heavy metal, maybe it's "The-Nightmare-Before-Christmas-ophilia" that has gripped countless millions.  Whatever the reason, nothing beats a skull for eye-catching appeal and creepiness.

As I mentioned on my previous blog, China doesn't do Death.  At all.  The morbid fascination that The West has with death does not exist here in China.  So naturally one would be confused to see skulls and crossbones everywhere on China's streets.

Now I'm not just talking about rebellious teenagers' punk-rock fashion.  I'm talking EVERYWHERE.  On fashionistas' scarves.  On old ladies' blouses.  On childrens' T-shirts.  On little doggie sweaters, for crying out loud.  Everywhere.
The variety is quite surprising as well.  Rarely will you see blatantly evil, fang-toothed, fiery demon skulls like the kind that we Westerners like to tattoo on ourselves and emblazon on our rock T-shirts and tricked-out lowriders.  The skulls one encounters in China (and the rest of East Asia, from what I've seen on TV) are rather benign and often cutesy skulls.

But they're still SKULLS, people.  Skulls come from dead people, and cutesy skulls come from dead CHILDREN.  Now I can understand if this was a culture enchanted by the gruesome and macabre, but this is China.  I just don't get it.

On a personal note, I think it's cool, actually.  I've got a hoodie with four separate skull designs, and my wife and I have matching skull T-shirts (now I know I've hated on this subject on other people's blogs but when skulls are involved, it's cool, so zip it).  I've always wanted to get a skull tattoo but that would go counter to the "nice guy with tattoos" image I try to maintain.  But a skull is just a skull, just a part of human anatomy. The fact is, death is not cool or fashionable, but it's a reality of life and shouldn't be ignored or feared.  The West is fascinated too much by it, and China is too petrified by it; the balance, like all things, is in the middle.

The last straw came yesterday when my wife and I were visiting a historic temple with one of my wife's friends.  She's a very typical Chinese girl who works in a local hospital, so I was a bit surprised when my wife told me that she has a tattoo.  I said, "Oh, really?" and my wife's friend said that she wanted to get it removed because Chinese men don't like girls with tattoos.  My wife lifted up her friend's shirt so I could see her lower back.  I was expecting a small rose or poorly-done angel, and my eyes nearly bugged out of my head when I saw a scowling skull glaring at me with flames the entire width of her back.  It was the last thing I expected to see on a girl like this, but it just reiterates the paradox I've been talking about.

Of course, I told my wife's friend that all guys like girls with tattoos, no matter what they say ;-P.
 
 
I’m not talking about economic soft power.  I’m talking about the power of grace and delicacy, something which is very well understood in Asia but is seemingly lost on most Westerners.  In the West, power is acquired by and equated with aggression, machismo, boldness, callousness, and often violence.  This kind of power could be termed “hard power,” and it’s very obvious and undeniable.

Yet the idea of “soft power” can be just as persuasive and even as devious as hard power, and as the name suggests, this is something that leans more to the female side of the spectrum.  You could call it “feminine wiles,” but that implies subversive intentions.  Soft power simply means to exert power and influence through softness rather than force.

Women in China are not hard, and women in China don’t want to be hard.  They don’t want to be weak, but they don’t want to influence others through outright aggression and force.  The combined elements of their small physical size, soft features and voice, social and cultural expectations, and China’s historical emphasis on grace and delicacy makes most Chinese women seek to be softer and more feminine in the traditional sense.

Now we Westerners hear the words “feminine,” “soft,” “delicate,” and we think “weak,” “submissive,” “easily manipulated.”  This is hardly the case.  Of course there are countless examples of Chinese girls who are manipulated and subservient to their men, but this is more often due to poor judgment, desperate circumstances and naïveté than innate weakness.  A woman who embodies softness and delicate beauty can wield tremendous power over men, but this is a power that men are more willing to submit to, because it compliments their manliness.  The fact of the matter is that most men don’t like a woman who is aggressive, loud, and coarse, because these are traditional male attributes, and as the Chinese say, a mountain cannot have two tigers.  A man does not prefer a manly woman, just as most women don’t want an effeminate man.  Yin doesn’t want another yin, it wants a yang.  Call it chauvinism, caveman gender politics, whatever; this is the way it is.

In China, and other Asian countries, women understand this.  They don’t want to compete with men to see who can be the most manly, and subsequently, the most powerful.  It is true that men are far more dominant in most Asian cultures, but I think this is due to economics and physical capabilities rather than inherent characteristics.  The reality is that Asian women actually do have a great deal of power in their homes and families, though this power is less overt and tangible, but no less real.  And as I said before, this is a kind of power that most men are willing to put up with, because it’s not in direct competition with them.  Let’s face it, men want to be powerful.  This is an essential male trait throughout the entire animal kingdom.  If there is a threat to that power, it must be confronted.  We men can’t help it, it’s in our DNA.

Of course I’m not suggesting that women should intentionally suppress any aggressive urges or assertive personality traits.  The world needs strong women.All I’m saying is that from what I’ve seen in China, men are men, women are women, and this relieves a lot of gender stress in daily life.  Of course this creates a whole new set of problems, but these are issues for each family to resolve on their own.  A man will resist a bitchy woman who disrespects him, but will gladly cater to a woman who expresses gratitude and appreciation for her manly man.  In my own experience, my wife is glad to be a delicate flower because she knows that I will cherish her gently and attentively.  She’s certainly not a pushover and she sets me straight when I need it, but I never feel that I have to tiptoe around the idea of her feminine identity because she sees her softness as something to be embraced and nurture rather than suppressed, and that makes me feel relaxed as a man and as a husband.

Now to all you guys out there using your hard power to manipulate and subjugate, and to all you ladies using your soft power to seduce and subvert, as the Chinese say, 去死.

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Xena- a bit on the butch side, but she handled her business. 
 
 
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Pop music is pretty lame across the world.  Now I confess to shaking my moneymaker from time to time but I know that pop music is fluffy music for happy times and nothing more.  For meaty chords, searing lyrics, and jaw-dropping vocals, I'll turn to other genres.

Chinese pop music is lamer than lame.  Ask anybody.  There are a few bright spots (Jay Chou, early Jolin, etc.) but that's like saying this is the healthiest hamburger at McDonald's.  It's still gonna kill ya.  Now this wouldn't be so bad if all this audio cancer was only bombarding your senses for a couple hours a day.  But no.  You take the bus, walk past a clothing shop, get a fruit smoothie at those trendy drink stands,  you've got some girly-boy striking gangster poses with a posse of hotties squeaking out the most infantile lyrics imaginable, or some Barbie doll  pop tart crooning about her broken heart while mugging for the camera, hoping to get invited for a photo shoot in a fashion magazine, 'cause that's where the real money is anyway. 

Now even this constant assault on one's very soul would still be tolerable if there were other alternatives to this auditory trauma.  But no.  That's all everyone everywhere is listening to.  You no likey?  Tough beans, McSam.

Now there would conceivably be the slightest sliver of light in this maelstrom of misery if the girly-boys were becoming ever-so-slightly more macho, or at least maintaining a constant state of ball-less-ness.  But no.   Back in the day, China had Hong Kong rockers Beyond, and more recently hip-hop found a few fresh faces, such as Wang Lee Hom and Jay Chou.  The girl's music has always been cutesy and bouncy but that's forgivable.

What's not forgivable is where the music is at today.  As a university teacher, and with the majority of my students being girls, I get the 411 on what's popular in the pop music scene, and the television stations are also up on the latest musical trends.  In the 4 1/2 years that I've been in China, I've noticed a serious decline in testosterone levels in popular music.  Boy bands like Super Junior put the likes of the Backstreet Boys and N'Sync to shame with their commitment to girlishness.  The only bright spot in this black hole is that they're Korean, not Chinese (though one of their members is in fact Chinese).

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Every day I hope and pray for a macho revolution in China's music world.  Or at least some diversity.  I mean DAMN, how many times must we watch Michael Jackson wannabes until the novelty wears off?  China's underground is brimming with talent in electronic and rock genres but they'll never get serious publicity until someone plucks these pop-and-locking feather dusters.
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Tang Dynasty, now there was some Chinese music with balls.
 
 
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Last post I talked about various Chinese perceptions regarding tattoos, and one of the most irritating stereotypes is that the girl with a tattoo must be a bad girl.  Well Danwei.org has a story about a tattooed Chinese beauty queen who quit her competition to protest people's narrowmindedness.  She had advanced quite far in the competition but her sizeable shoulder tattoo had been covered up.  When her arm was bared and the tattoo revealed, people began questioning her appropriateness as a contestant.  She angrily responded, "Lots of top Canadian models have tattoos. So if a foreigner has a tattoo, it's art, but if a Chinese person has a tattoo, they're a bad person? I can't accept that idea."  Amen, sister.

 
 
We've always been taught to never judge a book by its cover.  But in fact its often very easy to judge a book by its cover in China.  There is little subtlety in Chinese culture, especially when it comes to people.  In China, one usually looks the part they are playing.  If you look like a bad boy, you are a bad boy.  If you look like a shy, conservative girl, that's most likely what you are.  Of course there are always people who break the mold, but more often than not, people's outward appearance is indicative of their job, their personality, and their behavior.

The same holds true with tattoos.  Around the world, tattoos are usually equated with gangsters, convicts, and rock stars, but in the West it is becoming increasingly common to see people with tattoos, and even numerous tattoos, in places and positions you wouldn't expect.  A meek librarian might have a large backpiece, a CPA might have an intricate tribal shoulder design.  In films, someone with heavy tattoos is usually a thug or prison inmate, and someone with one or two is usually a tough guy or girl, though they could be either good or bad depending on the film.  Yet in every day life, tattoos are trickling into all corners of Western society.

Not so in China.  Chinese people often get a tattoo for the purpose of displaying it to the world, not as a personal memento or commemoration.  In fact, you will rarely see a Chinese tattoo that has been exclusively designed for that person.  Nearly all tattoos are chosen from flash books, and this illustrates a key difference between Chinese and Western thinking about tattoos: in the West, a tattoo is meant to express rebellion, individuality, or strength, and the more unique and personal the tattoo is, the better.  In China, there is usually little or no meaning behind the actual design; what is important is the size, placement, and the fact that this person actually has a tattoo.  Tattoos are usually viewed negatively, so the wearer will receive some form of judgement and/or condemnation, regardless of the design.

Chinese people often get tattooed for a handful of reasons, which I will try and explain.  Of course I know that these labels don't apply to everyone, and I'm not trying to condescend or anything, but anyone who knows China knows that when it comes to people's appearance, what you see is usually what you get.

First, let's start with the dudes.  If a Chinese guy has:

-A large amount of intricate, traditional Chinese designs, such as dragons, tigers, or warriors- he's probably got a lot of money, and he's probably involved in criminal enterprise.  If he has a crew cut or shaved head, and is going out of his way to display his tattoos in public, such as rolling up his shirt or wearing black wifebeaters even if it's a little chilly, these tattoos are a statement that this guy is not to be messed with, because he has unfriendly friends.
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-a small tattoo on the upper arm or shoulder- he's trying to look like a player.  His tattoo says "I'm not a thug, but I'm hardcore enough to dip my foot in the bad boy pool, and I know that girls like bad boys."  His tattoo will usually be very generic flash, such as a dragon, wolf, or tribal, and he will often wear sleeveless shirts and aviator glasses.
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-a small tattoo on the hand- he's probably involved in fashion somehow, such as a photographer or hairstylist.  He will usually have Japanese anime-inspired hair and fashion sense, and will only be seen in the company of other such divas.
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-a faded, unintelligible hand-poked tattoo- it means he and his buddies were feeling rebellious in high school and decided to give the world the finger and express their teenage angst.  Guaranteed he regrets it now.
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Now for the ladies.  If a Chinese girl has:

-a small feminine design on her ankle or upper arm- it means she's confident in her beauty and style, and wants people to know that she is liberated and independent, and she knows she's hotter than you so screw what you think.
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-a small tattoo on her hand- she's involved in the fashion or beauty industry, such as hairstyling, mani/pedi, or modeling.
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-lower back, aka. "tramp stamp"- she's a modern, open-minded girl who isn't bound by traditional feminine restraints, and since she's modern and open-minded, so is her fashion sense, which means she isn't afraid to show a lot of skin. 
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-arm sleeves, backpiece, or other heavy tattooing- her boyfriend is a tattoo artist.
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Most Chinese people would never consider getting a tattoo, because of the pain, the expense, the social perceptions, and the belief that one's body is a gift from one's parents, and shouldn't be altered or abused.  If a Chinese person chooses to get a tattoo, it's usually to express that they are open-minded and progressive.  This is a big committment, especially for girls, because China traditionally prefers chaste, conservative sunshine girls (though dreams and reality are rarely aligned) and a tattoo makes a girl edgy and independent, changing a girl into a grrrl, and that doesn't fly with most parents.  For a boy, he will unequivocally be perceived as a bad boy or playboy if he chooses to go under the needle, but China is more accepting of bad boys than bad girls.  There is hope though...my wife didn't have any tattoos before we met, and now she has two. Just yesterday, my school's foreign teacher liason, a single woman in her twenties, asked me about a good place to get a tattoo.  She was inspired by my ring tattoo and also wants to get a tattoo on her finger.  She's not super traditional but she's definitely not a bad girl.  The tide is turning one convert at a time....

People are often surprised when they find out that I've been a teacher for five years, and that I'm not a playboy, and that I don't play in a rock band.  Of course I would also get labeled in America, but the shock is much greater in China.  I'm a bit of a curiosity at the university where I teach but I take my job seriously and I think this helps people around me rethink their perceptions of tattooed people.  After all, it's just pictures on skin.

And for the record, a Chinese girl with a tattoo--magnifique!