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.

Apr 09

In 1967, China was “distasteful–though intriguing” and off limits to American tourists

By Mitchell Blatt | China , History , Travel

Used book stores are treasure troves of interesting books full of insights into the past. When I see a bunch of magazines, books, and dusty records piled up outside a cluttered secondhand book store, I can never help myself to look.
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So on Saturday, I discovered a 50 year old guidebook that claimed to tell about the whole world: the Encyclopedia of World Travel: Volume 2, published by Doubleday in 1967. (Volume 2 covers Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific. Volume 1 covers the Americas.)

1967 was one year after Mao Zedong began the violent class struggle that was the “Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution” and 18 years after the Communists had founded the People’s Republic of China. As you might imagine, there wasn’t much foreign travel to China. In fact, most citizens of the United States and many other countries were generally not allowed to enter China until China was opened in the 1970’s.

So the description of China begins by stating, “Travel is discouraged in the Communist People’s Republic of China…

In fact, many of the adventurous who have tried to enter China in recent years have been jailed. Some Westerners who had lived in the country for decades before the Communists seized control are still in prison, including doctors, businessmen, and even missionary priests and nuns. The former Government, an arch foe of the Communists, retains its hold on nearby Formosa [Taiwan, in modern reference] and other offshore islands.

Though travel in China is impossible for the present, it is interesting to know in broad outline the high points of the travels of others who journeyed across this vast land not too many years ago.

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What were those high points of travel? The book gives a general outline of the well-known facts about China’s geography and ancient history that you will find in other guidebooks. Society developed along the Yellow River and the Yangtze. East and South China are the main population centers. The populations even then were large by American standards of 2017:

The population of Shanghai is over ten million. Peking has well over six million.

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Now Shanghai’s population is over 20 million–24.1 million, according to China’s measure–and Beijing is 21 million. At the time, China’s population was majority rural. In 2012, China became majority urban.

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hanghai was described as a place of “squalor” and distastefulness.

Only in old Shanghai, which is walled no longer, did travelers see a Chinese city as it was centuries ago. Much of it was and is distasteful–though intriguing–to all but the sophisticated traveler who has long since learned Chinese cities are not what motion pictures would have you believe. In China’s cities, squalor is common, poverty almost a way of life.

China was a poor country back then–with a GDP per capita of US$95–and some of the scenes in the street still today unnerve recently arrived tourists. But the description carries with it a whiff of the old Yellow Peril imagery of Chinese as dirty hordes indulging in opium and depravity.

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n the realm of traditional culture, the book asserts that mainland China under the Maoist Communists had lost its traditions. If you want to see holidays like Spring Festival (New Year) and Dragon Boat Festival celebrated in “the grand old style,” you should visit Hong Kong and Formosa, “who carry on the traditions of their forefathers.”

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Indeed, the Communists attacked traditions during Mao’s rule. During the Cultural Revolution, “Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas” were labeled and denounced as the “Four Olds.” Besides restricting the celebration of traditional festivals, under the Maoist leadership and incitement, the Red Guards stormed libraries, burned books and artwork, and smashed temples.

Since tourism has returned and brought with it a bounty, the Chinese government, however, has emphasized its ancient sites and culture, rebuilding ancient sites, some that had been lost for hundreds of years, and putting government money behind elaborate cultural events. In 2008, China added Dragon Boat Festival, Qingming Festival (Tomb-sweeping Festival), and Mid-Autumn Festival to its official schedule of national public holidays.

Mar 30

In Korean restrooms, you will never drop the soap (and it won’t be stolen)

By Mitchell Blatt | Korea , Strange China News

Why is there no toilet paper or soap in most Chinese bathrooms? “People will steal it,” my friends told me.

I always thought, Who would steal toilet paper? But when authorities put a toilet paper roll into the bathroom at the Temple of Heaven earlier this month, the Beijing Evening News caught people (especially elderly people) taking huge amounts of toilet paper home for personal use.

Later they installed a mechanism that requires toilet-users to have a photo taken before automatically dispensing 2 feet of paper.

As for soap, Chinese could adopt an innovation from Korea: bar soap on a stick.

Mar 12

1+1=Buy one, get one free in Korea

By Mitchell Blatt | Korea

Shop in a Korean convenience store very often, and you will no doubt hear “1 plus 1″ (in English) sometime when you are purchasing something. Pretty self-explanatory. “1 plus 1″ means “buy one, get one free.” It’s a fun phrase and one that shows the popularity of simile English words entering the Korean language.

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Then you have Korean words based on English words, like:
bus = beo-seu (버스)
fast food = pae-seu-teu pu-deu (패스트 푸드)
cell phone (hand phone) = haen-deu-pon (핸드폰)
concert = kon-seo-teu (콘서트)

Concert is an interesting word, because the word kon-seo-teu mainly refers to modern music and pop music, while an older, more formal word refers to a concert of orchestra or classical music: oeum-ag-hui (음악회). This word shows the Korean language’s other major source of linguistic influence: Chinese. Oeum-mag means “music,” but the part that is very Chinese is hui, which sounds almost exactly like the Chinese character for event or meeting from which it derives: hui (会).

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Back to the topic: Convenience stores are real convenience in subways, where there are often convenience stores within stations, especially along the route to transfer between lines. Another great thing about Korean convenience stores is how many of them have heated containers for hot drinks like coffee and soy milk drinks. Koreans love for coffee means that you can get a passable Americano hot and prepackaged in no time at all.

Mar 10

Park removed from office: photos and fireworks from the celebration

By Mitchell Blatt | Korea , Local Politics

Park Geun-hye was officially removed from office today by the Constitutional Court. I will have more to write later. For now, here is a photo gallery from the celebration by her opponents. Click play to see the images.

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I wrote a short post about it for my political blog, Bombs + Dollars.

In part:

Korean parties fuse and change and rebrand all the time, so of course Park’s Saenuri party has already rechristened itself the Liberty Korea Party. It stands little to no chance. In the last poll released before Park’s impeachment, Park’s approval rating was 5 percent, and the Saenuri/LKP’s support dropped from 34 percent in November 2016 to 12 percent in January 2017.

What this means for the future of THAAD’s deployment is uncertain. The Korean opposition had opposed THAAD for the past year, but in January both Moon and People’s Party leader Ahn Cheol-soo expressed that they might be reconsidering their opposition on the basis that it would hurt U.S. relations to retreat from a decision that was already made (by Park’s administration).

Read the full article: The implications of Park’s removal from office for Korea

Previously I covered a pro-Park protest: Why some Koreans are still supporting Park Geun-hye at a March 1 Independence Day rally

Mar 08

Kakao Friends Store: Branded stickers from chat apps take over Asia

By Mitchell Blatt | Korea , Photos

I wrote last year about how LINE Friends Cafes are opening up around China, based on the characters in the branded stickers of the Japanese chat app LINE.

Now upon my arrival in Korea, I noticed a similar store with Korean chat characters.
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In Korea, Kakao is the leading chat app, with, Kakao’s investor relations team claims, 41 million domestic active users (in a country of 50 million). Apparently it noticed the profitability trend of characters, too. Kakao opened its second store in Hongdae in November 2016. Its first store, in Gangnam, attracted 450,000 visitors in one of its first months. With the opening of the Gangnam store, revenue from Kakao Friends merchandise more than doubled versus the previous quarter. Now there are eight stores in Seoul.
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Why do chat app character stores have so much success in Asia? Probably because there is a kawaii (or kiyomi in Korea) culture in Asia that is attracted towards cuteness. Chat characters and smileys are also a big part of chatting. In fact, emojis were initially developed in Japan, as the word “emoji” and the large amount of Japan-specific international emojis is testament to.

The mobile companies Line Corp, Kakao, and TenCent (WeChat) all focus on cross platform branding and sales channels. Besides its chat app, Kakao has taxi-hailing and ride-hailing apps, apps for shopping, video sharing, payment, games, Kakao Story, Kakao Music, and more. Unified use of the characters across platforms (Kakao Games feature the Kakao Friends) helps promote each platform. LINE even did a web series about their LINE Friends.

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Mar 02

Why some Koreans are still supporting Park Geun-hye at a March 1 Independence Day rally

By Mitchell Blatt | History , Korea , Local Politics

It was one of the most important patriotic holidays in South Korea and also a heated period of political discord. March 1, 2017 was 98 years to the day Korean activists read a document they called the Korean Declaration of Independence, in an affront to Japanese colonialism, and two days after impeached president Park Geun-hye’s legal representative read a statement expressing “regret” on her behalf to the Constitutional Court hearing the case.
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Having just arrived in Korea one week ago, I was thrust into the excitement. I went looking for an event to commemorate the March 1 Movement, and I found democracy asserting itself in all its ugliness and glory. People waved their own country’s flag, held signs calling the press “liars,” and defaced images of their political enemies, calling them “traitor,” “rubbish,” and “you’re not going to breath”—all without interference from the military police. In 1919, the Japanese killed thousands in the ensuing two months after the Koreans asserted their independence.

It wasn’t until 1945, with the Allied victory of World War II, that Korea finally was afforded independence from Japan. Then it was divided in half and has remained as such to this day. But while North Korea remains a one-party communist state, consistently landing in the bottom four countries int he world in rankings of political freedom and human rights, South Korea became a democracy in 1988, ending decades of repressive governance, and regularly experiences passionate protests and peaceful exchanges of political power.

Since it was reported that Park’s advisor, Choi Soon-sil, was involved in shaking down chaebols (Korean conglomerates), Korean streets have rocked with protests. By November, one month after the scandal was reported, Park’s approval rating hit 5 percent, and her disapproval rating 90 percent. On December 9, the legislature voted 234-56 for impeachment. Now the Constitutional Court is reportedly close to reaching a verdict on whether the impeachment will stand.
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didn’t go seeking out a pro-Park protest. I just happened to find it when I went to City Hall to see what was happening on March 1. Inside City Hall subway station, passengers exiting were carrying flags. The crowd pushing towards the exits made me feel like I was in China again. In the rush, I ended up in the midsts of masses waving flags to music and speeches and noticed the political connotations.

For someone who has 5 percent approval, the crowd seemed pretty large. (Voice of America cited reports of 200,000 people protesting at a pro-Park event in mid-February, and it may have been even larger on March 1. One of the anti-Park protests was pegged at 750,000.) Even amongst those aged 60 or older, the bulk of the pro-Park protesters, only 10 percent of seniors supported her in a December poll by Gallup Korea released just before she was impeached. For the age groups 19-29, 30-39, and 40-49, the percentage who supported her was 1 percent, 1 percent, and 2 percent, respectively.
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One woman I talked to said, “We believe the president is honest, and she is innocent.” Only Choi was guilty of crimes, she said. A man said he wasn’t there to support Park but rather to oppose what he said was an “illegal” impeachment. He also railed against what he felt was a biased judiciary. Then there were the many people carrying signs attacking the media for “lying.” A group calling itself the Patriotic Alliance to Protect Liberal Democracy posted a banner decrying the “rebellious impeachment” of the president and called the pro-impeachment protesters “instigators” who were “violating constitutional law.”

Park’s lawyers are arguing that the impeachment was illegal or improper for procedural and other reasons. A special prosecutor has named Park herself as a suspect for bribery, and 17 people have been referred for trial. In addition to political advisors, a number of professors and officials at Ewha Womans University, which allegedly gave Choi’s daughter special treatment, have been arrested. The Constitutional Court is made up of eight judges, all of whom have been appointed by two conservative presidents, Lee Myung-bak and Park. (Ordinarily, it is nine judges, but one of the seats is empty because the judge’s term ended. Six judges must agree for the impeachment to be upheld.)
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ehind the individual political disputes lays a bigger issue cutting to the heart of Korean political divides. The Korean flags being waved along with American flags, the prevalence of marine veteran hats and military berets on mens’ heads, and the banners printed with portraits of Park’s father, former president Park Chung-hee, says it all.

Korea’s cultural and generational divides echo today. Conservatives still accuse liberals of having communist sympathies or even ties. Perhaps to counter the narrative of the “patriots,” pro-impeachment protesters waved Korean flags on March 1 with yellow ribbons for the victims of the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster, the response to which Park’s critics claim Park was negligent in handling.

Conservatives say young liberals forget about the importance of America and the sacrifices of the soldiers who won South Korea’s freedom. But what of the continued reverence for Park Chung-hee?

On the banner from left to right: Park Geun-hye, Syngman Rhee, and Park Chung-hee.

On the banner from left to right: Park Geun-hye, Syngman Rhee, and Park Chung-hee.

Sure he presided over an industrialization program that put South Korea on the path to join the first world nations. But if conservatives accused liberals of forgetting the the cost of freedom, have conservatives forgot about all those dissidents arrested and tortured by Park’s regime? Have they forgotten about how Park rescinded the constitution and abolished freedom of speech, assembly, and the press? How his government monitored newsrooms and had critical journalists fired? How the Korean CIA under Park’s rule fabricated charges against activists and had them arrested and eight of them executed within 24 hours of the verdict? The director of the KCIA who assassinated Park, Kim Jae-kyu, said he killed him because of Park’s insistence on using any means necessary to violently suppress protests.

The supporters of Park Chung-hee’s daughter can protest the Constitutional Court now, but only because of the sacrifices of so many activists who risked life and freedom to protest Syngman Rhee, Park and Chun Doo-hwan. As one sign at the rally said, “Freedom isn’t free.”

Rhee, the other man on the banner of great Korean leaders conservatives venerate, took power in 1945 after years in exile as an independence activist. He manipulated his way into the American’s favor and kept the Soviets from unifying Korea under communism. He led Korea through the Korean War, but he used coercion to keep himself and his allies in power by arresting opposition legislators and rigging elections. He had to flee back to the U.S. in 1960 after ordering a crackdown that resulted in the police killing protesters.

The Korean War may have ended six decades ago, but just this past month North Korea tested yet another nuclear missile and murdered its dictator’s estranged brother, Kim Jong-Nam. The U.S.-produced THAAD missile defense system Park’s government agreed to host is a flashpoint today, with much of the opposition opposing its deployment. They say it will unnecessarily exacerbate tensions with the North as well as with China. Chulhong Kim, a Korean Liberty Party (Park’s party) activist and theology professor at a Presbyterian college, accused the opposition of supporting a “pro-North Korean, anti-American, anti-free market, anti-human rights” agenda.

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ational security is one of the main reasons anybody still supports Park. 15 percent of respondents who approved of Park in the December survey cited “diplomacy / international relations” and 13 percent cited “North Korea / security policy,” the two leading reasons. The rhetoric against the left by many on the right can indeed be unhinged, but some on Korea’s far left really do harbor sympathetic feelings, and even more defend the rights of those who harbor sympathetic feelings.

Talking about North Korea, some activists and writers living here—and this speaks to a strain of the global left, as well—will say things like, “What degree of that [information about North Korea] is American propaganda? Because, as you know, America tries to demonize countries that it finds a danger to its self interest. … A lot of people don’t understand that it was the North Koreans who were trying to kick the Americans’ asses out of here. They were the ones trying to kick the new imperialists out of here. But you don’t read it that way.”

South Korea, more than almost any country in the world today, proves that democracy is more complex than can be condensed into one-sentence slogans and absolutist maxims. Voltaire didn’t live in post-war Germany or South Korea. Here, “anti-government” revolutionary activity is still illegal under the National Security Act, a law that some progressives want repealed. Here, the government occasionally restricts South Korean speech to the North by balloon drop, and the leading progressive party has tried to pass a law make balloon drops harder.

At end, if one wants to defend to the death anyone’s right to say anything, they have to defend that person’s right and ability to live in a free and open society. Citizens of South Vietnam didn’t have that right. Neither did those who did on the streets of Seoul and Gwangju in 1919, 1960, or 1980.

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School pride: Some protesters come with their classmates and unfurl banners celebrating their old high school.

School pride: Some protesters come with their classmates and unfurl banners celebrating their old high school.

UPDATE: Park was removed from office on March 11 in a unanimous decision. I visited the victory celebration by the anti-Park protesters and shared photos.

Sources
”Impeached South Korean President Park Geun Hye tells court of ‘regret’,” AFP/The Straits Times
”What now for Park’s impeachment trial?,” The Korea Herald
”Park impeachment ruling expected in mid-March,” Nikkei Asian Review
”South Korea Impeachment Drama Enters Final Act,” Brian Padden, VOA News
”South Korean Far-Right Rises Up to Defend Impeached President,” Brian Padden, VOA News
Protesters hold weekly rally against impeached Park, Yonhap News
”Is Constitutional Court stacked in Park’s favor?,” The Korea Herald

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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Mitchell Blatt is an intrepid travel writer, and an author of two top China guidebooks, who brings his readers deep into the cultures of the places he explores. Subscribe now to get real stories of real people in real places around the world delivered right to your inbox.