Think in English with Adah

A TEFL blog: You have to train yourself to think in English

Why do We Chinese Still Watch the Gala?

The CCTV New Year’s Gala, a 5-hour TV feast of dancing, singing, comedies, skits, Chinese operas and magic tricks, has become one of the world’s most watched TV events. It must not be an easy job for the director and the acting crew to put everything together and do it live in front of the largest group of audience in the world.

“It is the television show that everybody watches and everybody loves to hate. ‘It is a crazy phenomenon,’ said Alison Friedman, a Beijing-based dance and theater producer. ‘Everybody complains about the gala, but they still watch it and then they talk about how bad it was.’ ” (Los Angeles Times)

With tons of complaints lined up on the web, why do we still watch the gala? If  the gala has become a Spring Festival Eve tradition in the last 30 years, why do we Chinese need such a tradition?

Here comes my analytical interpretations to the questions. Hopefully you will agree as you read on.

1. The gala serves perfectly as a large Chinese family’s collective pastime

First, take a look at the following 2 photos of 2 families watching the gala and identify things that are in common between them.

A Shanghai family gathers in front of their TV set and watches last year’s CCTV gala in their newly decorated apartment. (from a Chinese photo-sharing website)

 A villager and his family members watch the CCTV gala in Shandong Province. (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles Times)

Regardless of the stark contrast between the financial statuses of these 2 families, you can find the following similarities:

(1) Both photos involve a large extended family. Spring Festival Eve is the most important time for family reunions. Nobody misses this one out.

(2) Both families are indoors, to be more exact, in their living room (or probably the only room of their house). It is freezing cold in most places of China at Spring Festival Eve, nobody wants to go out. Watching TV can be the most convenient pastime for a winter night.

(3) It is a tradition for Chinese families to stay up until the New Year’s Day comes. All family members sit in front of their TV set and they’ve got 5 hours to kill – together. The family members are from different age groups and may have distinct likes and dislikes toward TV performances. They need some program that can fit in well for everyone in the family.

Now do you see the necessity of making such a gala? Even thought the LA Times article warned that the gala is in jeopardy as younger viewers begin to tune out, I still think that the gala phenomenon is going to last as long as there is such a need for families to sit together for some collective entertainment.

2. The gala is a convenient modern replacement of the lost traditions and roots

In ancient China, people followed traditional rituals such as worshipping their ancestors, gods or Buddhas at Chinese New Year’s Eve. I still remember that my grandparents used to burn incense sticks in front of the wooden name boards of our ancestors that were placed on the shrine in our old house in the countryside. But that was many years ago.




















(A Chinese shrine with a figurine of Maitreya Buddha on the top. Maitreya means happiness. He is one of the most popular buddhas worshipped by atheist Chinese people.)

However, in modern China, a lot of the traditions have been lost in the process of unification (minority groups being assimilated by Han people) and urbanization (villages being developed into towns).  What do people do if their traditions have been washed away by the irresistible flood of modernization?

This is where the gala comes in.

The gala is not only a TV event, but a cultural and psychological replacement of the lost rituals which means a lot to the modern Chinese people who may not be aware of their missing cultural roots.

You can find a lot of the ancient ceremonial elements making modern appearance in the gala.  

Take the following photo of the opening performance as an example. We have some well-dressed TV hosts and performers standing in the middle of the stage and anonymous actresses standing in rows at the left and the right of the photo. The layout of the performers is almost completely symmetrical. Of course, we Chinese lay a heavy focus on visual effects. But if you look at this scene with a religious tint, wouldn’t you consider the TV hosts and singers as priests (or Wushi in Chinese)? In ancient human societies, priests performed the sacred rites of a religion and served as mediatory agents between humans and gods. The TV hosts play exactly the same role! They are here to deliver the message from the Heaven to all the Chinese people that spring is going to come back to the earth.


(Two groups of dancers dressed in shimmering red and golden costumes  form a dragon and a phoenixon collectively on the stage of the CCTV New Year’s Gala.  The photo came from the gala’s tweets on Sina Weibo.)

Also you wouldn’t be suprised to see the great numbers of performers at some of the dancing pieces posing together to create an impressive and somewhat solemn effect. If this is not a religious ceremony, tell me what it is?! If this is a ceremony watched by most Chinese people that bears the covert purpose of fulfilling our psychological needs, how possible is it for it to die?

For anyone who is interested in getting a first-hand experience of the 2012 Gala, go to this link to watch the entire video. The gala is only able to provide the original Chinese version though.

If you like this essay, let me know by dropping a few lines!

A Difference Made to Get Better from the Worst: My 20-hour Ordeal on the Worst Train in China

The worst train that I had ever taken set off at about 3:00p.m. on February 20, 2010 at the very peak travel period of the so-called Spring Festival transport rush. It was the Saturday before the first work week when most people came back to work from Western and Middle-eastern China to Eastern China.  

Now let me list the dire conditions of this temporarily utilized train.  

First, the train was way overloaded. There were more than 90 passengers (not including small babies) who bought a standing -room ticket whereas the number of seats was only 120 in one compartment. There were people in every conceivable corner of the train! I even started thinking about renovating the train so they could hang people on the ceiling or walls!  

Second, hot water for drinking became unavailable just several hours after we boarded the train. There were mothers who needed hot water to prepare the formula for their babies to drink. Holding babies less than 1 year old on average in their arms and sitting on the floor of the over-crowded aisle, they looked helpless and the only solution was to use bottled mineral water to make some cold formula drink for their babies on a winter day.


Third, the train attendant of our compartment, a young lad with acnes on his face, never showed up again after some male passengers jumped together to make noises in order to get him opening the windows to let some air in when the train paused at a temporary stop for 2 hours. Because there were no air-conditioners, ventilation was really poor unless passengers kept opening the windows when the train stopped and shutting them down when it moved again. This repetitious practice could drive people crazy for the train paused ad hoc for more than a dozen times!

Next, all the lights went off at night so it was completely dark, which made it very easy for thieves to get their jobs done. Ironically, when all the passengers had decided to immerge themselves silently in this complete darkness, some loud disco music started to be broadcasted from midnight to about 2:00a.m. Was this an act of vandalism conducted by the young train attendant when he felt bored in his nice clean rest room?

An annoying food cart selling distasteful and roughly cooked meals kept going back and forth through the standing crowd even at 2:00am. Who would buy meals in early morning? Each time the cart passed, it stirred up a great turmoil among the standing passengers. Standing passengers needed to climb up the seats in order to spare some space for the food cart. Children cried and adults grumbled. This ridiculous schedule of the food cart had pushed most people to an edgy state. The cart may have been seized by the angry passengers and the service people may even have been beaten up by the resentful. My imagination dared not to go on.


Then some deliberate black humor happened in the compartment at around 3:00a.m. The train stopped at a station and some passengers squeezed themselves in this packed-out compartment. One of the 2 toilets of the compartment was occupied by 3 passengers who decided to stay there over night despite the unpleasant smell. These people knew it profoundly that the toilet was actually the least crowded place on that train. Usually, train attendants didn’t even bother to drive these people out because they would come into the washing room again anyway. A foreseeable but helpless consequence was that more than 200 people lined up to use 1 toilet. This toilet could be called the most used toilet in the world if there was such a record.

Finally, the train had been delayed for 4 hours. There was no formal apology notices except that an informal announcement was broadcasted when the train stopped for the first time for about 2 hours.

I do not like making complaints but all these tiny things added up and it came to a point that I couldn’t neglect the bad service I had received. If I just got off the train like the rest of the passengers, I may not even talk about my ordeal on this train with my friends. But what about the mothers and the babies who needed hot water for making drinks on the next similar train? Would they have to drink cold formula again? I just couldn’t forget the helpless and tired looks on those mothers’ faces. It was time to change, even a little. I suddenly remembered a hotline number for making complaints about the railway system.

I got this hotline number (010-5184 3418) based in Beijing in late January accidentally when I was surfing on the Internet. So I dialed this number with little hope for having the current situation changed at around 8:00a.m the next morning with many seemingly calm eyes staring at me. They were actively speculating the outcome of the call, probably negative from their passive point of view. They have got used to this unfair treatment during Spring Festival transport rush so my attempt to break this ridiculous loop seemed feeble and naive. But I still wanted to do this for them and for myself. In my call, I used a very clear structure and listed the above conditions in a priority order.

The outcome of this complaint was so surreal that I even doubted the realness of it. I never expected that the railway system reacted in 1.5 hours to my complaint in such a serious way, which was beyond my fondest hopes. The female chief conductor of the train called me and came to our compartment in order to understand the real situation. This middle-aged woman with black curly hair listened to my reasons for making the complaint with great patience. Her eyes had an earnest twinkle. It appeared that she cared about my words more than anyone else on the train.

After the chief conductor understood everything, she explained some reasons for the bad service that we got and apologized sincerely. She revealed that most train attendants are underpaid and the lad we had in this compartment was temporarily assigned so he didn’t really care about the passengers. The power supply was in extreme shortage at midnight. The electricity power wasn’t enough to keep up the lights,  let alone broadcast further announcements about the delay. The train attendants did boil hot water. But there were too many people sitting on the aisle so they were afraid to scald the passengers if they moved hot water jugs from one compartment to another.

All these explanations sounded really reasonable. But weren’t they excuses? Now take a look at this insanely overloaded compartment. Everyone was not treated as a real passenger or a service buyer. We were like goods being transported in a big metal boxcar moving on wheels! This even reminded me of the inhuman treatment that the Jews got in WWII. Why did the train system sell overly excessive standing tickets when they knew clearly that the train service couldn’t accommodate this huge amount of passengers? If they set a reasonable upper limit on the number of the standing tickets they could sell, there would be far less passengers on this train. And everybody would be having a pleasant journey and getting basic on-board service! Basic train service was all we asked for for Confucius’s sake! Of course there would be passengers who couldn’t buy the standing tickets of this train if the railway system cut down on the amount of the tickets.  Instead, they would rather travel by alternative transportation tools (such as long-distance buses) in order to take a comfortable and safe trip. 

This Chinese poor people’s typical ordeal on a train could have been avoided if the railway system reduced the number of the standing tickets. This would mean less income for the railway system but it would be a really simple solution to this long-term conundrum that poor people in China always get poor train service during Spring Festival transport rush every year. Getting more money or taking care of passengers, these choices unfortunately never comes to the railway leaders’ mind when they make decisions, because they simply do not consider the railway system as part of the service industry. Now why would they care about these people from the lowest social class of China? They don’t complain. They just get off the train and get on another packed bus like sardines. They have got used to this packedness. So why bother?

Now let’s get back to our story and see what happened on the train after the chief conductor gave her sincerely worded explanations. She came to the occupied toilet and drove the 3 guys who occupied the toilet for the entire night out. Several train attendants carried 2 bottles of hot boiled water to our compartment very soon after the chief conductor gave her orders. The chief conductor also proposed that she will take out some measures in order to punish the train attendant who was supposed to serve the passengers in our compartment but did actually nothing. She suggested that she will decrease the train attendant’s salary for this month and ask him to write an apology letter and send it to my by fax as evidence for the punishment. This was getting really interesting! Nobody had ever written an apology letter to me so far. I would certainly frame it and hang it on my wall!

But the story didn’t end here. Astonishingly, the leader of Nanchang Railway Station, where the train set off from, gave me another apology phone call. This leader should be much more superior to the chief conductor. He used such a serious and hearty tone that it sounded like he was reporting to me. What he said was really not expected. He expressed his anger with the train attendant in our compartment and he would just fire him and ask him to make a verbal apology in front of all the passengers in my compartment!

However, I didn’t make the complaint call in hope of that the train attendant would lose his job because some parts of my complaint were not totally his fault. But the leader of the railway station made such an abrupt decision and I can sense that he wanted to impress me with his strong willingness to make the passengers happy. I guess my complaint had been reported to the national railway system so the leader of the railway station had been reprehended by his boss. I guess he needed to get this complaint handled fast so he wouldn’t lose his opportunities of getting a future promotion or something.

At last, 3 minutes after the train arrived in Guangzhou East Railway Station, this irresponsible train attendant came reluctantly. He pretended to be ignorant of the passengers’ complaints against him. But after the chief conductor scolded him, he realized that there was no way out so he apologized to all the passengers and bowed. The passengers, mostly migrant workers, got excited because they never expected this kind of treatment. However, this should be the way how things are run in a service industry even in our highly populated China.

After all this, the chief conductor and the other leads required me to make a return call to the railway hotline to basically eulogize their ways of dealing with the complaint. This step of making a follow-up call must be designed by the National Railway System as a way to urge the train leaders to take actions and to keep them under surveillance. Then all the leaders shook hands with me and thanked me for “helping them to improve their service quality” before I got off the train. This was certainly an once-in-a-life-time experience for me.

I knew from that day that a complaint call can make a difference in China but certainly my call had been escalated to a certain level of management so that it could have this kind of exaggerated impact on the train staff.

Nevertheless, one thing did change in my mind. I started to understand the difference between ignoring these things and noticing them and not letting them go, even though I didn’t feel hopeful at the beginning.

Now I hope that the railway system can learn something from the Chinese army in terms of their attitude of serving the people if such an analogy stands.



This is a statue made of GRP created by Xu Hongfei in an effort to praise the Chinese army’s selfless spirit of serving the people. These 4 soldiers fell asleep while leaning against a railing during their short break when they were assigned to accommodate the passengers who got stuck in the railway stations after severe snowstorms left the railway system paralyzed in South China in 2008.

Now when will they set such a statue for train attendants? Let’s hope for the best while we have to tolerate the worst.

(Thanks for reading this article. All the photos used in the article were found online because photos were forbidden to be taken on this train after the complaint was made. This is an original article written by Adah Huang. Please contact the author before you cite the article. My email adress is

First Impressions of Dalian

We had a really great trip to Dalian last May during the Community Event of our company. Dalian seems to a dreamland for people from over-crowded cities such as Guangzhou, Shanghai and Hong Kong.  Known as a city famous for tourism, Dalian carries a bit romantic and exotic hue:  pointed rooftops in Russian style, roads curving along the coastlines, European villas upon hills and seaside, foreigners walking on the street with bare feet coming from a morning swimming in the sea… Even the Russian pop music on our shuffle bus brought us to this retired lifestyle of Dalian. 

But that is not all the elements that Dalian is made of. Restaurants have titles in Korean and Japanese characters where waiters and waitresses are dressed with the latest hairstyles. You could also discover that the splendid night views of the squares and busy shopping streets are exactly the same as the things that people in any other big cities live up to. All of those remind me we are in a city full of modern moves, just like Guangzhou or Shanghai.  

The sea in Dalian holds the most clean and cool water than any other seas I have ever been to. I could not resist the temptation of stealing a piece of the beautiful scenery home. Although feeling guilty, I picked some stones from the Silver Beach. Even glasses have been polished into a round shape by the blue water of the sea of Dalian.   

Sichuan! Hang on!

It has been nearly a month since the terrible catastrophe happened in Sichuan. It is a relief to know that our country has made great headway with rescuing all injured people and people whose lives are still at risk of floods or mudslides that might be caused by the recently formed lakes. The time had come for us to lament over the passing of the victims during the 3 days of mourning and more practically, the enire nation is exerting all efforts to condole and help the needy people in the disaster area. Most of the rescuer soldiers risked their own lives in order to save people they did not know. But all of us know that we share a same name “Chinese”, which is no longer born by a group of people who wore little caps with long braids but is a name of people with a whole new set of connotations – persistence, openness and nobleness.

Time will pass but in our life we will never forget what happened to us as both Chinese people and as a nation in the past few weeks. Let’s face the pains and deal with them by redoubling our efforts at work in the following weeks, months and years until this moment becomes one of the most touching experiences seared into the deepest memory of our lives.