The Quest for Deodorant

Stuff is easy to do in the US. Oh, I need a new shirt? I’ll go down to the Mall and buy one. Oh, I need a new hat. I’ll just go to the HAT STORE. Oh, I’m out of deodorant? I’ll stop by Vons and pick up a new stick.

Nothing is that easy in China. Nothing. It takes me 4 hours of work to find a new shirt, then another hour to actually buy it. I have been looking for a new hat since mine got stolen in Argentina. Deodorant? Ask any Chinese what deodorant is. His response will be, “What’s that?”. You know, it’s ironic. All this stuff that is so easy to get in the US is ACTUALLY MADE IN CHINA. But try to find it here, dude. It’s impossible. Anyone who has read my previous postings knows of the Great Deodorant Search 2004. I finally found some at an expat store in near my work. So I ran out of the stuff I bought and went to go get some more and (of course), they decided to stop carrying it. The only stuff they carry now is some sort of foul smelling liquid that mixed with your BO when you sweat so you smell half stinky and half chemically. Very appealing, no? I panicked. What would I do? I don’t like to stink, mind you. I called my friend from work.

“Oh, I’ve got quite a stash from when I was home. I can give you some. What kind do you want?”

I got some spray on stuff from him, but that stuff isn’t that much better. I wanted a bar with the solid powder stuff. I’m a guy so I don’t care if it makes my arm all white. No one sees. It works great and that’s what I wanted. I was running out of his spray stuff anyway. I turned to the internet. After two hours of searching, I found some deodorant online. But, of course, they couldn’t ship to China. I kept looking and finally found a place. $21 bucks to ship four bars of deodorant to me in China via Fedex 3 day.

Problem solved, right? No. Keep in mind that I LIVE IN CHINA.

While eating lunch the other day I get a phone call.

“as;dfj;sdjksd Casey Cobb? asdkfhalkjsdhjsdaf,” said a muffled voice.

“Yes? Hello?”

I listened to people talk in the background and no one said anything to me so I hung up. I later realized that they couldn’t find someone who spoke English. 20 minutes later I get another phone call.

“Casey Cobb?”

“Yes, that’s me.”

“We have a package for you.”

“Oh, great. Who are you, by the way?”



“We need your passport so your package can clear customs.”

“Of course,” I said sarcastically – although I’m sure she couldn’t tell, “what do I need to do?”

“Just fax it to us and it will take 2-3 days processing IF it clears customs.”

“HAHA, ok. I will send you my passport,” and with that I went to an office supply store, spent 10 minutes trying to explain to some random girl there what a fax machine was (I walked over to the printer, put my paper on it, said “BEEP BEEP BOOP BEEP” and pretended like the paper was going through). She then faxed the paper and I tried to call the woman at Fedex, but only got her voicemail so I left a message saying I had sent the passport.

Problem solved, right? Nope. Remember, I LIVE IN CHINA.

Fast forward a few hours to 8:00PM when I am at work. I get a phone call.

“Casey Cobb?”


“Umm…are the contents of this package for personal or commercial use?”

I chuckled to myself.

“Personal use,” I said. What the hell would I do commercially with four bars of deodorant, I ask you?

“Ok…well, we can’t figure out what the purpose of these things are.”

The Chinese really don’t know what deodorant is. It has only appeared on the market here in the past 5 years and very few people use it. So I gave the phone to one of my students to explain. He handed to phone back to me.

“Mr. Casey, we need a copy of your passport so this can clear customs.”

“But I sent one already. I even left a message confirming it,” I responded.

“Hmm…well I didn’t get it.”

“Of course not. I’ll send it again.”

So after class, I sent it again and called to confirm. This time, however, she decided that she didn’t want to speak English. After several minutes of me talking some Chinese and English and her speaking Chinese, I said “OK. Any problems? You call me if problems?” “No problems,” she responded. So that was that.

I followed the status anxiously on the tracking section of the Fedex website: As of today, October 10th, the package has been delivered! YES!

So, remember how I used to be frustrated and stressed out while living here in Beijing? I have noticed now that I am back to my normal, confident, and quick to laugh self. I find myself laughing a lot, nearly the entire day. I’m teaching a class at Tsing Hua University: “The Chinese MIT.” I’m teaching four classes each with about 21 students with two other instructors, who each have their own four classes. One of them is a Dutch guy, Hans, who’s been living in Beijing for about 10 years and speaks fluent Chinese and is absolutely hilarious. I’ve also met a German guy, Maurizio, who is equally hilarious. My roommate Brad is incredibly funny too and so, I basically spend my day walking around with a big smile on my face. In China, you have to get used to people looking at you just about everywhere you go. They look at you as they walk by, on the subway and usually just steal a glance. But some guys stare, especially old me for some reason. My answer? I look right back at them, give a big smile and say “NI HAO” (hello) and about 90% of the time, they smile and say hello right back. It’s great. I’ve been experimenting with a new philosophy lately. Instead of letting things happen the way they happen, like letting someone take advantage of you or make you feel awkward, I make a conscious effort to “mould” the encounter into what I want it to be. What do I mean by that? Well, for instance:

When we first started teaching at Tsing Hua, my boss (Val), who is an incredible lady and just so happens to be really funny as well, told us that there was some hostility between us and the instructors paid by the University because they didn’t understand why Berlitz was teaching there. So the staff set up a meeting between us all so we could meet. The other two instructors were a little unsure about this and thought that it was going to be a stressful encounter. My response? “We are good teachers. The school wants us here. Just be confident and everything will go great”. It did (of course) and we got free pizza out of the whole deal. Does life get any better?

The other day, I got in the Taxi to go to work. I’ve practiced the tones and know exactly how to say where I need to go. I got in the taxi, told him where to go and we were off. I watched Beijing zoom by for 20 minutes and realized that we had passed the University.

I pointed at the meter and frowned.

“Wo men qu Tsing Hua ma?” (Are we going to Tsing Hua?)

“Tsing Hua?” He then explained to me (at least, I assume that this is what he was saying) that I had told him Tsing Hua with the wrong tones. He was taking me to the Tsing Hua that sounds a lot like Tsing Hua but is said differently. He said we had to turn around and got off the highway to do so, but the meter was still ticking. Now…I know that sometimes words sounds alike and there can be some confusion, but I also know that there would not be another famous University called Tsing Hua Da Xue with a one tone difference so close to Beijing. This was the first really smooth taxi driver who was trying to rip me off, and I knew it. He wanted to squeeze a few more yuan out of me. Maybe like 30 more (the ride should be 20 yuan total). I got mad and embarrassed but kept my cool. I didn’t say anything more for about 2 minutes. I quietly took out a piece of paper, looked at his ID card mounted on the dash and wrote down his ID number. Then I wrote down his supervisor’s phone number. I held the paper up to verify the numbers, folded it and put it away. Then sat quietly and looked ahead.

I was bluffing.

I am a westerner in a suit. I don’t know Chinese. But from his perspective, the chances are that I probably know some important people. I didn’t flaunt the fact that I wrote down his number and so he probably then thought it was guaranteed that I knew someone and that this little exploit would probably cost him his job.

He just as quietly reached over and stopped the meter.

We arrived at the school 20 minutes later and the meter still read 22 yuan. He pointed out that he had stopped the meter to which I responded that I knew and had seen it. I paid him the 22 yuan and he refused 2 of them. He handed me back the two 1 yuan notes and smiled sheepishly. I nodded, took my receipt and got out of the cab. He probably still thinks I’m gonna call him in.

It really is incredible how much control we let other people take over what happens to us and how easy it is to take it right back where it should belong.

People also are more willing to laugh at a lot of things that you might think if you take things too seriously.

Every time I get into a cab, I give the cab driver a big smile, apologize for speaking bad Mandarin, tell him where I want to go and we are off. Sometimes they try to talk to me, despite the fact that I tell them over and over that I don’t understand and can’t really speak Chinese. Like yesterday, for example.

The guy kept telling me something. He really wanted me to understand and I just didn’t. But finally, I caught a word: “Yue”, which means “moon”. This during the moon festival day, I pointed up and said “yue?” and he got really excited. “I UNDERSTOOD!”

I found in my book the whole name for the moon festival and showed him and he was really happy that I understood. He gave me a tour of all the places that were decorated on the way home, pointing out little spots of interest. It really was interesting. Beijing has got lights all over the place. The week long holiday (for National Day) is just starting and during the moon festival, everyone gives each other these fruit cake-like pastries called “moon cakes”. They are filled with all sorts of random stuff and are actually pretty good. I’ve eaten quite a few of them, one of which had a long hair baked right into the center of it (god bless China!) and people give them as gifts all over China. It’s quite interesting to see tons of Chinese people running around with these huge bags of moon cakes everywhere. People get pretty excited about them too, “Casey, have you eaten a moon cake, yet? You have to eat one today!”

So everyone is gone for the holidays and no one is taking English classes. I havema week off to do whatever I want. I got a new business idea so I am going to check out some leads with that (I’ll spare you the details right now since it would add another two pages to the post) and will also study for the GMAT. It’s going to be nice to just relax for a while.

Here’s something that you hear quite often, and to a certain extent, I agree with it: “All Chinese people look the same.”

Why is that? Let’s think about it for a moment. Nearly all Chinese people have black hair, dark eyes, and narrow eyes. Most have the same skin color (although there are many darker skinned Chinese that I never saw in the US before coming here). They usually don’t have facial hair, have similar builds (there are a few fat people, but not many), and similar height. All the things that Westerners use to distinguish one person from another back home are the same with the Chinese. So we come here and try to use those features to distinguish them and can’t make any sense of it. That’s how my theory goes. I’m sure that there have been studies on this, but I haven’t read any of them. I just like to come up with theories on stuff like this.

So my roommate Brad was telling me tonight at dinner how all Westerners look the same to him. I laughed and asked him how that was possible. We all have different hair color, builds, skin and eye color. His response?

The Chinese don’t use those things to distinguish between each other!

It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Why would they use those things if they are all the same? So what do they use then? Brad tells me that they use the distance of space between the eyes and the eyebrows. Imagine that. They also use the specific shape of the eyes and mouth. Brad told me that one of the most difficult things about learning English was learning to describe people by the color of their hair and things like that because he never looks at those things when he meets a person. CRAZY, huh?! It makes such perfect sense.

Here’s another thing I find really interesting. While teaching English, you see how the Chinese make many of the same exact mistakes in their speech. A lot of this you can chalk up to the fact that they were taught by non-native English speakers, poor quality text books and the fact that they are doing a direct translation in their head which doesn’t work because the structure between the languages is different. For instance, most Chinese have real problems with the plural form of a noun. It’s really common to hear things like “Many computer”, “two tree”, “most of the animal were there”, etc… But one thing that really intrigues me is the tendency to say a completely different word than the one they are reading when the book is right in front of the persons face. Someone might read the word “usually” as “usual” or “computation” as “computer”, especially if the word is a new word with which the person is unfamiliar. Why is that? I recall reading something in “The Economist” about how people who speak languages which use symbols (like the Chinese) use completely different parts of their brains when reading and speaking than people who use western languages. Chinese is based more on recognition and western languages require you to read the whole word for comprehension. The interesting thing was that there is a lower percentage of dyslexics among Chinese speakers than among speakers of western languages (something like 5% vs. 2%). For some reason, the region of the brain used in Chinese speakers is less prone to the dysfunction. The other finding was that native English learners of Chinese (or vice versa) tend to continue using the same region of their brain as they use for their native language when they learn a new the new language.

So here is my theory. The Chinese are still using recognition when they are learning English. You can’t just switch this hard wired circuitry off. They see a word that they think is the one that they know, their brain triggers “recognition” and they say the word they think it is (even if it is not), without even reading the entire word. It would be interesting to see if this could be proven scientifically, but I see it in action over and over every day.

I’m telling you, there are opportunities abound for learning on this trip. It’s like a never ending class – but you can’t skip school if you don’t want to attend or are feeling sick. There are no breaks: you have no choice but to learn.

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