Roll up those taxi windows, drag your bags through security… this only comes every ten years. Beijing’s bitter wind welcomed 2270 delegates yesterday to shine their shoes and take their seats in a room booked for the “18th National Congress”. While the U.S. lets out its breath to enjoy another four years under Obama’s leadership, China prepares itself for a new president and premier (7 of the 9 current Politburo Standing Committee members are retiring this year). Xi Jinping, the likely candidate to replace President Hu Jintao, emphasized four main questions to be addressed at this year’s conference, namely: What flag will we wave? What path will we follow? And in what state of mind? To continue advancing towards what kind of goals? (我们党将举什么旗、走什么路、以什么样的精神状态、朝着什么样的目标继续前进) Specific, I know. Citizens wait eagerly to see what solutions the committee generates for problems like insufficient health care, inflated real estate, and the growing gap between the rich and poor. As news stations flash snippets of animated discussions over round mahogany tables, the mysterious lure of the national government grows in the eyes of the people. Local and provincial governments may be corrupt or unfair, but loyalty towards the national government is a tradition that stretches back thousands of years, born from the people’s innocent dependency and undying hope in a power that remains faceless. Just as religion presses followers to have faith in what they cannot see, a government too can round up millions of supporters if only by providing a mirage of hope.
There are flat screen TVs on every mode of transportation in Shenzhen (and in many other Chinese cities), though I’d say 85% of the programming is commercials, and 80% of the commercials are for McDonalds (with the occasional KFC). For those currently in China, let’s take a moment to reflect upon the ridiculous images of colorful tapioca pearls sliding through the straws of Mcdonald’s bubble tea. On my fifteen minute commute to work each morning, I enjoy such images no less than six or seven times. The best part is, everyone on the bus watches the loopy straws and floating sugar balls over and over again in a unified silence— we all know that any bubble tea produced by Micky D’s will be painfully difficult to drink, if only because most of the time when Western chains try to cater to the Chinese market, they fail to meet even the lowest standard.
But moving on… if one diverts one’s eyes from the relentless bubble tea commercials to the interior of the subway car or bus or whatever one is riding, there are countless other images scattered about to keep one’s interest. My favorite are the latest posters for a car rental company that have smeared themselves over every last inch of Shenzhen’s subway cars. The ads are actually quite clever– both for their play on words and creative taglines.
To understand how a play on words works in Chinese, refer to the first ad above, which features a flashy “自游自在 租！” in the upper-left hand corner . There’s a Chinese idiom “自由自在”, which means “free, easy, and comfortable— happy and carefree”. The advertisement uses this idiom but changes the second character (由), which phonetically reads “yóu“, to a different character, (游) which is also pronounced “yóu” but means “to tour”. In other words, if one simply read the advertisement out loud, it would sound exactly like the common idiom (zìyóuzìzài), but on the poster, it has a second meaning, which denotes travel.
I like to joke that as a foreigner, I can defend my frequent misspellings of Chinese idioms as an intentional play on words— a necessary exercise for some future career in marketing…