All Posts byMitchell Blatt

About the Author

Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist based in China. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, The Hill.com, The Federalist, City Weekend, and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.

Feb 17

Chinese netizens mock Trump’s English — “Could he pass the Chinese English test?”

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Viral Chinese News

“I’ve been feeling unconfident for this many years. I’ve always questioned my English reading ability. But after continuing to read Trump’s tweets, finally my self-confidence has returned, and I have discovered my vocabulary is actually very large!” – Viral post in China’s WeChat social app says, sent January 30

Trump’s often-misspelled tweets and unrefined prose at press conferences has been noticed by Chinese citizens. Could Trump pass China’s College English Test? A Xinhua News analysis article is titled, “With Trump’s English ability, what level could he test in China?” (Passing CET level 4 is a requirement for most undergraduate students to earn a degree.)

Reporter Chen Shan pointed to the simple nature of many of the words Trump uses in his public statements.

His tweet defending his immigration ban included two uses of the word “bad,” one of which was used as a noun and bracketed in quote marks.

If the ban were announced with a one week notice, the “bad” would rush into our country during that week. A lot of bad “dudes” out there! – @RealDonaldTrump

I have instructed Homeland Security to check people coming into our country VERY CAREFULLY. The courts are making the job very difficult! – @RealDonaldTrump

Chen noted, “The toughest word in the whole expression is ‘instructed,’ which is on the level of CET4 (also called College English Test 4).”

Next Chen looked at some of the Super Bowl tweets Trump sent out.

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Chen wrote: “One can read the content without sweating.” She compared his tweets to one of Obama, which used words on level with TOEFL, the test that American and British universities require foreign students to pass for admission.

Chen continued on page 3:

Among Americans, there really is a range of English abilities, some people at a high level, some low low. But for an American president, the weakness of his English is historic.

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The chart comes from Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute (source).

Later Chen also brought to light Trump’s “unpresidented” misspelling in a tweet about China capturing a U.S. Naval drone. Chen or her editors even translated “unpresidented” into Chinese as “非总统的” (fei zongtong de).

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“So we believe that the TOEFL and GRE vocabulary may really not be suitable for Mr. President.”

Chen noted Mr. President’s habit of repeating words over and over again and using very simple sentences. “Look at Paris! Look at what happened in Paris.” Even Americans who can’t read Chinese can see how simple it looks when translated into Chinese: “看看巴黎!看看巴黎!看看巴黎!看看上周的加利福尼亚!”

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In short, according to Chen, there are three things Mr. President does: 1. Deliberately repeat, 2. Use command tone (“Look”), 3. Change usage.

Feb 03

Arriving in a new and less welcoming America after years abroad

By Mitchell Blatt | Foreign Affairs , Local Politics

On December 5, 2016, I arrived at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Fresh off the plane from China, I was tired and irritable waiting in the immigration line. Then on a TV screen hanging from the ceiling came a familiar face.

President Obama, with his bright, toothy grin, smiled at the arriving travelers. “Americans are some of the friendliest people in the world,” he said in his message, “and they will welcome you to your community … no matter where you come from.” Around me I saw men of every race in business suits, women in headscarves, women in dresses, and people in traditional garb.

I relaxed and felt the pride of returning to one’s country. But my sense of patriotism at that moment was tempered by an abiding anxiety and despair. Imagine what the feeling will be when Donald Trump addresses Americans and foreigners taking their first steps into our country. What message will he send?

This is the man who referred to an American judge as “Mexican” and said his ethnicity should disqualify him from presiding over a case, the man who tweeted anti-Semitic messages from white nationalist accounts, the man who built his political brand on questioning the place of birth and religion of America’s first black president. This man, with his long record of antagonism towards minorities and immigrants, is among the last people you would want to greet diverse travelers at America’s ports of entry.

The very demeanor of the man is disagreeable. He talks like a child. Everything is either “tremendous” or “a disaster.” He can’t go one minute without congratulating himself. There’s nothing welcoming looking at him. His forced smile is that of a used car salesman who just sold you a lemon. Most of the time, though, when he’s not aware of the cameras, he’s skulking around with a scowl like he just read a tweet about his crowd size.

It didn’t take long to find out. Less than two weeks into his presidency, permanent American residents are being detained at airports. Five-year-olds are being handcuffed and removed from their parents. Interpreters who worked with the American forces on our self-proclaimed goal to stabilize Iraq are being told they can’t come to America, and Syrian refugees of any religion are being kept out even if they’ve already been vetted and acquired the proper papers, some even forcibly deported.

There’s more to come that will affect students, tourists, and immigrants from all around the world. One draft order would deport legal immigrants who legally use welfare programs. Another would clamp down on foreign workers. Buried in the text of the immigration ban that Trump already signed are provisions calling for the government to create a database of travel documents and require pointless interviews for any temporary visa holders who wants to extend their visa. Multiple executive orders call for the government to release reports on alleged crimes committed by immigrants and foreigners, reminiscent of Breitbart’s coverage of crimes committed by refugees and minorities under the leadership of Steve Bannon.

It’s not just that Trump doesn’t care about the value immigrants bring to America. It’s not that he simply wants there to be a semblance of order governing immigration. He could have made the already difficult immigration process harder without blocking people who already went through the process. The blanket bans, the wide-ranging scope that targets visa-holders and green card-holders, those measures serve no conceivable purpose other than spite.

As an international traveler who is fortunate enough to have been born in the most powerful country in the world, and thus have access to more than 160 countries visa-free, I feel sorry for the people who went through a process for over a year, paid large sums of money, and are blocked from entering the “shining city on the hill” at their last steps just because of where they were born. I feel embarrassed, having explained many times to people of the world, how America is a country of immigrants, how anyone can be an American, part of a wondrous culture created through exchange. Was I wrong? Were the naive Chinese citizens who told me I “didn’t look American” because my eyes were the wrong color right after all?

I have friends from China who wished to be American, who loved America so much they called themselves “American” when we met. I have friends who wanted the American values of freedom and democracy for their country, who wait to know whether America will protect them, even as Americans themselves take their system of government and rule of law for granted.

Is America still all its patriots and poets say she is? Will America welcome you, “no matter where you come from”? Has it ever been “exceptional”? There have been times before when those words didn’t ring true either. Today’s self-proclaimed “patriots,” who spout on about “America First” in front of a flag while defending their unconstitutional executive order, certainly lose their right to invoke any of the self-glorifying mythology.

But as long as once-strangers fleeing persecution are met with well-wishers and lawyers who will file a habeas appeal on their behalf, America will retain some of the friendliest people in the world.

Dec 24

The real reason Chinese people eat apples on Christmas Eve

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture , Strange China News

Last night was Christmas Eve in China, so my WeChat account was full of apple emojis and festive messages.

“Don’t you give each other apples on Christmas Eve in America?” multiple friends asked.

That Americans give each other apples on Christmas Eve appears to be a common misperception in China. Although it’s a big tradition in China, many Chinese people don’t even know they invented it.

“Giving apples on Christmas is what kind of a custom?” a questioner asked on Guokr, a Chinese Q-and-A website. Another question asked, “Is eating an apple on Christmas Eve something Chinese people invented? Just because it is homophonic [(in Chinese)]?”

When I first received apples from Chinese people on Christmas Eve in 2014, that’s what I thought, too—that the tradition was because of the homophone sound. “Christmas Eve” translates to ping’an ye (平安夜), which literally means “Peaceful Night” or “Silent Night” (the same as the name of the song in Chinese). Apple is pingguo, and the character is also similar (苹果).
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Dec 12

“Sometimes you need someone who doesn’t act professional”: Taiwanese on Trump

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Foreign Affairs , New Writing

Whatever one thinks about Trump the person, the vast majority of Taiwanese are ecstatic that Trump appeared to give their country a little respect and took a (pre-planned) phone call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen. I wrote about the circumstances behind Taiwan’s domestic politics at Red Alert Politics and how Taiwan’s youth are increasingly united around independence: What Trump’s call means to Taiwan’s ‘strawberry generation'”.

Now here are brief comments from two other young Taiwanese I talked to recently.

Ryan, a bartender who has worked in Nanjing, China, the Republic of China’s old capital, said:

“Finally there’s a politician who is not political. Sometimes you just need someone who does not act like a professional to make a change. When you try to break through an impasse, you’ll need a random genius to break it, then you’ll have a chance to rebuild something.”

Mohan, whom I met at a hostel in Nanjing, China, said:

“That Trump had a phone call with Tsai Ing-wen made me especially happy. Although China has developed pretty well, life isn’t just about money. The mainstream thinking of Chinese people still isn’t in accord with the tide in the world.”

Nov 24

“Black Friday Overseas Shopping Festival” is coming!

By Mitchell Blatt | China

Last night Amazon sent me a text message alerting me that “Amazon’s real Black Friday Overseas Shopping Fesitval” is coming. The foreign shopping festival comes just weeks after China’s own retailer-created “Singles Day” on November 11.

Singles Day is still the biggest retail day in China, but Black Friday is getting more attention as Amazon, capitalizing on its American background, is pushing it. Amazon.cn is covered with promotions emphasizing Black Friday. Taobao and TMall, China’s leading online stores, aren’t pushing Black Friday promotions.

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Even in New City Plaza, a shopping mall in Nanjing, a few clothing shops had signs using the word “thankful” around Thanksgiving, although there was no Thanksgiving-related imagery.

Because China absorbs some Western culture, it effectively has two versions of some holidays. Western New Year and Chinese New Year. Christmas and Christmas Eve are also big shopping and entertainment days in China. Now Amazon will try to get Black Friday to join the mix.

Nov 10

A night painting with Zhuzhou’s only graffiti crew

By Mitchell Blatt | Art , China , Culture

Desk, Shark, Fat, and Klute were spraying their nicknames onto a wall in a northern suburb of Zhuzhou city, Hunan province when a police car drove by and flashed its lights. Desk and Shark ran down an alleyway, but Fat stayed to finish his tag.

“Where are they??” Desk asked, in the safety of the alleyway.

When Fat and Klute came nonchalantly walking along, Desk asked if they weren’t worried the police would chase.

“No,” Fat said, “the Chinese police are lazy.”

Indeed, the police didn’t pursue, and the GCK crew continued to make their mark for another hour. According to Desk, an American who has taught English in China for two years, the Goofy Chinese Kids are the only graffiti gang in the city of 1 million. On one wall near a university, there was some graffiti written by others, but Desk dismissed it as the work of “art students trying to be edgy.” All of the graffiti on the road by the train station was marked with the names of GCK members.
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Nov 08

Cantonese folk art associations and the preservation of culture

By Mitchell Blatt | Art , China , Photos

On November 6, Cantonese opera actress Li Chixiang shared her expertise and experiences with the Yuanzhou Town Folk Art Association (园洲镇曲艺协会). Singing, dancing, doing magic and recalling stories, she was able to draw laughter and applause from the audience of a few dozen locals intent on preserving China’s traditional art forms.

“China has 5,000 years of history. We should pass it on,” said Zhu Runhong, a member of the folk are association.

Li spoke for an hour, talking about how she once ran away from her home in the suburbs of Guangzhou to try to study Cantonese opera and later was enrolled in the Guangdong Cantonese Opera Academy. Showing off her wide range of talents, she did a trick to turn blank papers into 100 RMB bills and danced with a multicolored fabric. It was like a “talk show,” she said. Every Friday she hosts a Cantonese opera show on Guangzhou TV, and the TV network sent its reporters to cover it.

“In an average month, we perform about five times like this,” Li said. “But in the rainy season, we might not perform once in a month, and during Spring Festival, we could perform every day, sometimes even twice a day.”

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Zhou Aiwen, who has been an actress for 7 years, practices in the car on the way.
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After her act, the members of the Yuanzhou Town Folk Art Association’s Cantonese opera troupe took the stage to perform scenes from the opera Dinv Hua (帝女花). The group holds meetings and practices three times a week and competes with other local arts groups in local and regional competitions. Located in Shangnan city, about 2 hours from Guangzhou by car, Yuanzhou is one of many Guangdong villages to tout its rich Cantonese opera tradition. In 2012, the Shangnan Folk Art Society, featuring some members of the Yuanzhou group, won silver at a provincial Cantonese opera invitational.

The media in Yuanzhou even tries to use new technologies to preserve its traditional arts. One local entreprenuer founded Yuanzhou Online (http://www.yz0752.com/) in 2006, a forum which includes news and events in BBS format, and launched a Boluo county app this year, upon which he live streamed Li’s talk and the opera performance to up to 1,500 viewers.

See also

Backstage with Li Chixiang at a Cantonese opera performance
An Interview with Li Chixiang

Nov 04

Chinese student uniforms on a foreigner

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Culture

You know a Chinese student when you see one because of their 80’s-track-warm-up-looking uniforms. Chinese student uniforms, or xiaofu (校服), are a famous emblem of Chinese education, hated by students for being ugly and remembered with laughs later.

For Halloween I like to wear costumes with special Chinese characteristics, so this year, guess what… I was a Chinese student.

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A friend Hunan who graduated from Zhuzhou No. 2 High School lent me her xiaofu. Xiaofu, it turns out, is gender-neutral and one size can stretch to fit many people. The attire consisted of a pair of pants and a jacket with lining. The clothes were made out of a quick drying polyester-ish material. Students only have two pairs, she said.

I added a red neckscarf for humor. Red neckscarfs are worn by primary school students, who are made to participate in the Young Pioneers program, a patriotic group run by the Communist Youth League. They aren’t worn by high school students, but I expected Chinese people would get the reference. I have worn red neckscarfs before without school uniform–for example while working at the bar in Dali–and Chinese people found it funny to see a foreigner wearing the red neckscarf.

Chinese people stared at me as I walked to the Halloween party at a bar. Having dinner before the party, a group eating in front of a childhood blackboard wanted to take pictures with me.

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At the party, a group of young people pulled me over to their table.

“We’re classmates!” they said.

Apparently they had graduated from Dali No. 2 the year before. One of them handed me a beer.

“Gan yi bei!” one of the girls said. Drink it all!

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Oct 24

LINE Friends Cafe: How LINE app turned chat stickers into a branded character universe fans wait in line to see

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Food and Leisure

Transformers and the Lego Movie showed there’s still a market for movies based on toys. Now the success of Line Friends in Asia shows that there is also a market for cafes and merchandise based on emoticons and stickers.

At Catherine Plaza in Nanjing, China on Sunday afternoon, October 23, a line of over 100 people waited for entrance into the newly opened Line Friends Cafe & Store. While they waited they took pictures with the giant statues of a bear, a chic, a rabbit, a frog, and a moon.

The Line Friends are a cast of characters originally developed as stickers for the chat app Line between 2011 and 2013. As the app exploded in popularity, Line eventually expanded the character lineup and featured them in animations (Line Town) and games (Line Rangers). Now they have started opening stores.

On its website, Line claims to have 45 stores in nine countries either open or in the works, but the list appears incomplete because it doesn’t include the Nanjing location. Besides Asia, Columbia and the United States (Times Square, NYC) are also listed as the sites of planned future stores.

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The shops that have just opened in Shanghai and Nanjing are extremely popular. Fans, who were about 70-80 percent female and largely younger than 25, waited in line for 30-40 minutes to get in on Sunday afternoon. Inside the place is divided into sections based on the characters, including a cafe, a restaurant serving hot dogs, and a merchandise section that included apparel, backpacks, bags, and branded items for 100-300 RMB (which the women I was with thought was too expensive).

However despite the great interest in the Line Friends characters and the popularity of Line in neighboring Asian countries, few Chinese use the chat app Line Friends were originally developed for. Of the dozen fans I talked to, none said they actively used it and few said they downloaded it but didn’t use it. WeChat and QQ are the leading chat apps in China. Line claims to be the leading social network in Japan and boasts 700 million users worldwide, with popularity in Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Spain as well.

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But Line Corporation, which is a subsidiary of the Korean internet giant Naver, has found a way to turn their chat stickers into expansive brands. It created a whole universe around the Line Friends called Line Town, and it developed the stories of the twelve characters in a series of 50 1-3 minute short animations.

It also worked to get the Line Friends in people’s minds through multiple media channels. One fan at the cafe said she heard about the Line Friends through Korean music idol group Exo. Line Corp also capitalizes on the popularity of photo-taking apps in Asia. Some of the Chinese fans did use the app Line Camera, which lets users take photos of themselves with the images of a Line Friend’s face superimposed over their own face.

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A corporate promotional website lists six related and overlapping areas of business development: “STORE”, “Café”, “Collaboration”, “Character Goods”, “Licensing”, and “Contents.” Besides the 5,000 Line products that are said to be already in production, Line will also develop “license business with the world’s best partners in various fields” and introduce “authentic products collaborated with world famous brands.” Possibilities for Line entertainment features include “animation, movie, game, education, [and] publication.”

When it went public on NASDAQ in June of this year, Line raised $1.1 billion to become the biggest IPO of a slow year.

Sep 19

Video for Chinese air travelers: Don’t fight the airline employees

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Strange China News

As more and more Chinese have been traveling by air in the past decade, many for the first time, reports of passengers fighting with airport staff and running out onto the runways have become a common phenomenon. And Chinese passengers often have reason to be angry. Their airports are some of the worst in the world for on-time departures. Average delays at Shanghai, Guangzhou, Xiamen, Nanjing, and Hangzhou were all over an hour.

In 2014 the airlines of China got together and produced a helpful video explaining why delays happen and telling travelers not to fight. It seems to be partially an introduction to inexperienced travelers and partially a PR effort, but it also doesn’t explain one of the main reasons flights in China are always delayed.

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1.) It begins by explaining the “main reasons” a flight could be delayed. Those are “weather,” “traffic,” “airline reasons,” and “travelers.” It is nice of them to admit that the airline could be the reason, something some American airlines have a hard time doing. But what’s missing from the four “main reasons”? The fact that less than 30 percent of China’s airspace is open to civilian airlines, while the air force aggressively controls most of the sky.

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2.) Why are we stuck on the runway?, this man asks. As the video goes to explain, maybe there are a lot of planes waiting in line. (Maybe they have to wait a long time because there’s a lot of traffic in the skies due to no airspace being open.) This is the explanatory part. There is also an explanation that even if the weather at the departure and arrival airports is nice, there might be a storm in between.

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3.) Up until reason #4, all of the characters in the cartoon have had black or dark brown hair, but when it gets to “passenger” reasons for delay, when it shows passengers stupidly being delayed while buying snacks when their plane is about to depart, the characters suddenly have yellow and brown hair! Are only foreigners so stupid as to delay a plane by being late? (A flight wouldn’t wait an hour for a late passenger, however.)

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Military operations are only listed–along with “unidentified flying objects”–as a secondary reason flights might be delayed.

Now we get to the fun part of the video: exhortations to be “civilized” when traveling.
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Don’t kick the trash can! There is an orderly process for dealing with delayed flights:
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This video divides delays into two categories: Those which are the responsibility of the airline, which the airline will provide compensation for, and those which are not, like weather.

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If it is the airline’s responsibility, they will communicate with you, offer food and lodging, get a replacement flight set up, and/or offer monetary compensation. In my experience with Chinese airlines, they really do live up to their obligations. When an international flight was delayed for about four hours at Shanghai Pudong, they provided food, offered to let me stay in a hotel for an hour or two (I declined), and handed us all a few hundred yuan as we boarded the plan. Try just getting transportation and hotel covered when your flight is actually canceled because of airline fault on with an American company and you might have to argue with their customer support for weeks!

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Don’t run out onto the runway and block the plane if your flight is delayed! Once again, I was slightly interested in the color of the hair the cartoon characters had in this scene.

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However when the characters are being escorted away by police all of them have black hair.

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Don’t try to rise up against the airline’s customer service! The other passengers will shun you if you try to fight. (One of the women tells the man he wasn’t being “civilized.”)

Here’s a video of what that kind of fight actually looks like in real life:

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And finally, don’t act like a superhero and start Hulk-smashing things or Batman-kicking things.

I first noticed this video being shown on flights in 2014. It was produced in partnership, the credits show, with Air China, China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines, Shenzhen Airlines, Sichuan Airlines, Xiamen Airlines, and a number of smaller airline companies. The Chinese Civil Aviation Administration is listed as producer.

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