Sun, Jun 25, 2006 - Page 18 News List

Cross-cultural idiosyncrasies make for mirth and merriment

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

By Xinran
209 pages
Vintage Books

A teacher was talking to four students, one each from America, Europe, Africa and China. He asked them, "What is your personal opinion of the international food shortage?" The American said "What's international?" The European said "What's a shortage?" The African said "What's food?" The student from China said "What's a personal opinion?"

Xinran is a Chinese broad-caster and writer living in London, and she tells this joke in her new collection of columns from the UK's Guardian news-paper. Her role there appears to be to try to explain the Chinese to the English. But when she was living in China her radio broadcasts made her famous as someone who explained the modern world to millions of Chinese.

In some ways the two roles overlap. Many of her columns retell surprising things that happened when she was working in China's media -- questions people sent in, and reactions to the things she said on air. Writing in the Guardian must be a good job for her nowadays, as she has so much material already stored up from her previous incarnation.

In one column she remembers a meeting at her radio station in 1989 to discuss which Western festivals they could mention. Christmas, it was decided, should be ignored. In Chinese it sounds like Victorious Egg Festival, she explains, and what's more any adjective followed by "egg" means an idiot, so it can also mean Victorious Idiot Festival. The station's director had a different objection, however. He thought mentioning Christmas would be a victory for capitalism, and defeat for China's revolution. As a result, Christmas still hadn't been discussed when Xinran left the station and moved to London in 1997.

But often her purpose in the columns is to point out to the English how much China has changed in recent years. Valentine's Day, previously condemned as a date ridiculously set aside for "sexual hooligans" to celebrate on, is now very popular, she points out, even if millions of Chinese still believe children come out of their mothers' belly buttons.

She insists that this is the case. China started sex education in primary schools in 2002, she says, and many parents were furious, demanding to know how teachers dared teach their children such "dirty lessons." Even finding teachers willing to undertake the job was hard, apparently. "Sex," she writes, "was forbidden in Chinese culture after the beginning of the Song dynasty in the 10th century. Such handbooks as were undoubtedly produced were only for the elite, she claims.

She covers many fascinating topics, and often tells jokes at her own expense. In one instance she relates how she was teaching a class on Chinese culture at London University. Being a Chinese woman, she says, she had been brought up not to kiss in public. "Please don't kiss," she asked her students. But on her birthday, all 22 of them lined up behind the door and, as she came into the room, kissed her on her cheeks one after another. For 45 minutes she lectured them, after which they suggested that she might need to go to the ladies' room. There she saw 22 red-lipstick kisses all over her face. She lost her Chinese inhibition about kissing in public after that, she claims.

In fact, Xinran is a strongly committed woman on the issues of destitute children in China, adoptive mothers of Chinese children, and Chinese mothers living abroad. She has even created a charity, The Mothers' Bridge of Love, to help such people in need (

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