Friday, March 09, 2007


Much has been written about the differences and rivalry between Beijing and Shanghai. In the past, I've always come down on the Beijing side. How not? The time I spent in Beijing in '79 had an inestimable impact on my life, even if it had its traumatic aspects. Besides, I didn't actually visit Shanghai until 1993, for the first Shanghai International Film Festival. At the time I was too jaw-agaped with the vast changes in China to even absorb much about the character of the city.

When I visited Shanghai again last year, I came away with a much more positive impression.Shanghai may be a chaotic mega-opolis, but it strikes me as more pedestrian-orientedthan Beijing - at least there are more neighborhoods that you can easily walk, especially along the Bund and the French Concession.

Shanghai people have a reputation in China as being, well, a little stuck-up and unfriendly. I didn't find this to be the case. For one thing, there are so many "New Shanghai People" - "WaiDi Ren" from outside of the city - that the character of Shanghainese has changeda great deal. You don't hear nearly as much Shanghai dialect as you once did,which used to be a way of excluding outsiders.

Northerners are considered more uncouth, but also more friendly and genuine. Why citizens of the cultural capital of China are regarded as somewhat uncivilized, I couldn't say. I will note that taxi drivers in Beijing are almost universally Northerners (many with near-impenetrable Dongbei accents - so "rrr" ladened that they would be prime participants for "International Talk Like A Pirate" Day). The shopgirls that work in places like Silk Alley and Hongqiao Market are almost all from the South. These are the kinds of shopping areas where you will get ripped off right and left if you aren't careful, end up with counterfeit bills, pay far too much for fake brands, even if you do speak Chinese and are therefore "a friend of China, so I give you the special Chinese price!". I ran into plenty of girls who gave me that speech. I also had some of the nicest encounters of my trip, chatting with some of these women, the ones who didn't try to rip me offor treat me like a cash machine on legs. One, another person born in the Year of the Boar, immediately tied a second red string around my wrist, just to make sure I had enough luck to get through the trials of my animal year. If you didn't know this, your animal year can be a very good year or a really bad year - there's a lot of energy and challenges you have to deal with, apparently, and it can go either way. I figure I need all the luck I can get.

Anyway, I always feels a little silly making blanket generalizations about millions of people, even if Chinese themselves tend to do it.

One thing I'm pretty sure of, however. Beijingers swear more than Shanghai people. My friend Tim, a long-time Shanghai resident, tells me that Shanghainese consider expressions like: "ta ma de!" pretty strong stuff. I'd always heard that "ta ma de!" (literally, "his mother!" but used like, "son of a bitch!" or "dammit!") was very mild and even used in mixed company. Certainly it's nothing compared to what I heard in a Beijing net bar the other day. This was one of the dumpier netbars I've ever been to, off Jiu Gulou Dajie - that's Old Drum Tower Street for you waiguoren, probably one of the most picturesque areas left in Beijing. This bar is down an alley, up three flights of stairs above some weird-ass department store selling cheap shoes. Dimly lit, painted beige and third-world green, sagging and dusty gold curtains, upholstered metal chairs with gaping holes in the seat, the only decoration occasional posters of warrior chicks in armored bikinis. A smoke-filled room with "no smoking" signs on the wall. Row after row of young Chinese guys played online games - maybe three women in the place, other than the workers, and one foreigner (me).

The gamers were a rowdy bunch. The guy next to me was particularly intense, with a friend coming over now and then to perch on the arm of my chair and offer advice on killing attacking demons. Everyone was cursing like crazy, shouts I could hear from the other side of the room. Stuff that Chinese friends had taught me and expressions right out of one of my favorite books, "Outrageous Chinese - Beijing Street Language." Stuff like: "Wo c**!" "Sha b*!" "Ma b*!" and, I believe,"Shou c** ni ma b*!" which is far too nasty for me to translate on a public forum.

The guy's little elf avatar must have really gotten nailed by one of those demons...

I found this whole scene incredibly entertaining. For one thing, how often do you get to have your spotty knowledge of Chinese obscenities confirmed? For another, I had used Chinese netbars as frequent settings in the novel I just finished, the one I submitted to the First Chapters contest at I got mostly positive responses from the opening chapter of my submission (that's all that has beenposted so far), but one complaint I had from a number of readers was the amount of profanity. I'd thought the language appropriate to the tone of the book and the narrator's voice, but apparently this really flips some peoples' switches.

Now I'm thinking, "Hah!" Because if a gamer next to me in a netbar says stuff like "Wo c**!" and all that talk about some guy's mother's hoo-hah every five seconds, I figure I pretty much got it right.

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