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Noodle Blogs: Your Absence Swells My Eyes With Tears, So I Am Seeing “Red In China.”

Posted in Good People, Recommended Reading

By Damjan DeNoble

Years ago Dan used the phrase “Noodle Blogging” to describe China blogs (often written by ESL teachers)  that focused mostly on the blogger’s personal impressions of China. 

Most of these blogs do not last long (they typically end when the blogger returns to his or her home country) but some of them have built up loyal followings and continue to shine.

By now Ryan McLaughlin has to be king of this better-noodle genre. As the pen behind the once mighty Humannaught, the still there expat portal, Lost Laowai, and the only relevant China news aggregator HaoHao Report, Ryan has evolved from China blogger to China blog shepherd for the would-be China hand, guiding thousands of new eyes to various topics each day.

Ben Ross was the plucky original, with his blog, An American Hairdresser in China. Ben chronicled his experience learning Chinese and coping with his Chinese bosses in a Beijing barber shop. This series of posts ended when Ben returned to the States, but it is still worth reading for every hilarious tidbit. (Why no book yet Ben?).

The international entry, from New Zealand, is bezdomny ex patria. This is the guy you want to have dinner with when you come to Beijing, preferably at a place that doesn’t mind loud conversation. His self-described ramblings are straight from mouth to page, like the transcript of a licensed court reporter. Even though his life as a new dad has reduced his blogging of late, reading his archives is the next best thing to living in Beijing.

My personal favorite noodle blog has to be the genius mad house 10Tonfunk, presided over by the equally genius-crazy Fred Dintenfass, before he returned to New York this past Spring. His street poetry, archived under the “Song of Songs” tab, and the modernist works of fiction and graphics design found under his Hi-Art tabs come highly recommended as a singularly unique set of reflections on life in China. 

Over the last half of the aughts, however, noodle blogging has largely been co-opted into the social network noodle bowl (maybe more of a ‘ZuckerLinked Sausages’ bowl?), which has allowed travelers to impart their hutong discoveries in the quick-click verse of newsfeeds and microposts. Now it feels like the China blogosphere is a little empty (indeed, it may be dead) without the noodle blogs we once loved and loved to shun.

That makes the Seeing Red In China blog a most pleasurable anomaly. It is the herald of China noodle blogging version 20.11.

Seeing Red In China’s author, Tom, has traveled the China road less spit on, preferring to start in the country’s rural heart and only then work his way towards the coast:

For the past four years I’ve been living in China, but my interest in the middle kingdom started almost a decade ago when I started reading every book about Chinese history I could get my hands on. My goal throughout college was to one day live in China, and when I got the chance to work for a Chinese Christian organization working in education in rural China, I jumped at the chance.

I arrived in Longzhou, a town so small few people had heard of it even within the province, completely unsure of what to expect, but with my background in East Asian Studies and Anthropology I was sure that I could handle it. I lived in villages for two years in Guangxi, before moving to Chengdu for a year. I currently live in Nanjing and am experiencing a completely different part of life in China.

Tom’s popularity (and one only need look at the quantity of comments he receives to know he is popular) is due in large part to not straying from his mission statement:

My goal is to slowly cover every aspect of modern China, and to avoid simple black and white explanations of what is happening in this country of nearly 1.4 billion people.

Tom meets the call of his mission statement by offering up original journalism that evenhandedly evaluates China. Tom’s posts are original and offer his readers an honest window into the unique humdrum of everyday Chinese life .

Some of his very best articles address challenges facing China’s health-care infrastructure. Tom presents these issues through intimate portraits of people he meets as a teacher/worker in a Chinese hospital.

The post “Mental Health in China – a personal case,”is a typically compelling read. It deals with both mental health services access and commercialized abortions in China, while staying within the confines of a very human interaction with a seventeen year-old student struggling to find someone to talk to after a harrowing sexual encounter and an unwanted pregnancy:

One night I received a phone call from a female student who was incredibly distraught. Both myself, and my teaching partner spent close to an hour talking with her on the phone that night in an effort to calm her down. She didn’t want to live anymore, but could not tell us why. All we knew at this time was that it had something to do with her breaking up with her boyfriend.

These break ups are much more serious in China than what I have witnessed in the States. Here boys are encouraged to date around a little, but if a girl has had more than 2 or 3 boyfriends it can be considered fairly scandalous. At my previous school a girl had thrown herself into the river because she couldn’t handle Valentine’s day after her boyfriend left her.

Tom’s writing skills must come, at least in part, from his listening skills:

Finally though she decided that she was ready to tell us what had happened. One night she had been out with her boyfriend and his friend, and they were all drinking (they were only 17).  Her boyfriend was called home, and she was left there with his friend. That night he raped her. If that wasn’t awful enough, he told her that if she didn’t continue to have sex with him, he would tell her boyfriend that she had seduced him.

Tom often fills his posts with facts, integrating them as elements of the story:

In China (and other Asian cultures) women are often so socially powerless that in situations like this it feels impossible for them to escape. He had targeted her weakness, and she knew if her boyfriend found out, her parents would too, and they would no longer love her (this is partially just the emotions of a 17 year-old girl, not everything is China’s fault).

After being blackmailed for sex by this boy three or four more times, she realized that she was pregnant. As a young unmarried woman, her only choice as she saw it was to have an abortion. She knew that this was a common procedure, and one that she shouldn’t feel bad about, since that was what the advertisements on the bus told her (they do actually advertise abortions on the bus).

She went to the cheapest clinic she could find. She told me about a month after it had happened that she knew that she was going to be a mother, but that they “cut out the baby.” There had been complications from the procedure as well, and she was told that she would be infertile.

I for one, hope that Tom really is a signal of what is to come in the new China blog order. Do check out the rest of this post at Seeing Red In China and Tom’s other posts as well.

What other noodle bloggers out there should we be checking out?

  • http://10tonfunk.com Fred

    Thanks, Damjan! Honored to be mentioned alongside Ryan, Ben, Chris, and Tom. All great guys and fantastic bloggers. Ben wrote one of the best blogs on life in China and learning Chinese — I continue to be in awe of his linguistic and anthropological skills, and am looking forward to both his book and his PhD work. He also has great facial hair. Ryan is probably the nicest dude in the Chinese blogosphere, and w/ HHR, LLW, and his own blog, has done more for the China blog community than anyone. Though I don’t read a lot of China blogs right now, I’m excited every time there’s a new post on bezdomny ex patria and have been really enjoying Seeing Red in China.
    When is The Guy pt 8 coming, Damjan!?

  • Damjan

    @Fred
    I completely agree about Ryan. I believe that HaoHao Report is really doing a marvelous job of bringing China stories to potential China travelers. It’s a niche that’s hard to do well.
    The Guy Pt 8 is coming in e-book form soon….

  • Tim

    Sinocidal was pure genius until it disbanded. Their parodies were second to none and went a long way to speaking to many of us in the laowai community. Sadly it appears to be impossible to find any record of their posts.

  • http://www.asiahealthcareblog.com Damjan

    @ Tim
    That blog was before my time but Dan did a post about it five years ago: http://www.chinalawblog.com/2006/11/bye_bye_talk_talk_china_hello.html
    I wish I had a chance to read it since it sounds like EVERYONE loved it.
    Were you familiar with “Talk Talk China” mentioned in the above post?

  • Mark

    Wait, an English teacher in China who isn’t a frat boy trying to relive the glory days? I didn’t know those existed. (Seriously.)
    I’ll have to read them to believe it. Until then, I remain a skeptic.

  • http://chinahopelive.net Joel

    I’m a fan of Tom’s blog, too! Definitely not enough bloggers like him around.

  • Tim

    Sinocidal was pure genius until it disbanded. Their parodies were second to none and went a long way to speaking to many of us in the laowai community. Sadly it appears to be impossible to find any record of their posts.

  • http://www.ryan-mclaughlin.com Ryan

    You guys are making me blush. Damjan, thanks the for plug.
    Sinocidal and Talk Talk China were both brilliant and as much as I love Tom’s blog (it’s definitely popular for good reason), I do long for that balls-out humour in a China blog again.
    Noticeably absent from the list above is Sinosplice.com. John was one of the first noodle bloggers, and his blog continues to share insight and resourceful stuff about China, specifically about learning Chinese. Whenever I start to think that I’ve been in China and in the China blogsphere for a long time, I think of John.

  • Neddy

    @Tim & others:
    There is an extensive archive of Sinocidal content available, as captured by the WaybackMachine. Start at:
    http://wayback.archive.org/web/*/http://www.sinocidal.com
    Anyone wants to read the (in)famous “In the Image of Cats” post (removed from the original blog), go to:
    http://web.archive.org/web/20071006022452/http://sinocidal.com/2007/05/30/in-the-image-of-cats-then-the-mold-was-broken/
    Note the WaybackMachine I link to is a beta, and may, at times, be erratic. Enjoy

  • http://www.mattschiavenza.com Matt Schiavenza

    This is a very good list, and likewise I lament the dwindling of the ‘noodle blogs’ in China….it was always a source of comfort for me when I first moved here in ’04, as well as a source of inspiration for my own writing.

  • David R.

    I miss CnReviews. http://cnreviews.com/

  • Damjan

    @ Ryan
    Damn, Sinosplice is a glaring omission, I agree. Sinosplice everybody! –> http://www.sinosplice.com/

  • http://www.geoffinwuhu.blogspot.com Geoff Gibson

    Dan,
    I’m not sure about this “noodle blog” idea. Personal experience is, to me, the most useful information to convey. When I write about China (which I’ve been doing for five years) i always think something along the lines of “what could I tell people about ordinary life in China that they couldn’t get in any one of hundreds of other places?” And that often means talking about things that you see and do every day. And if a blogger doesn’t do this then he’s in danger of wallowing in generalities of ‘the Chinese are…” variety.
    I think writing about personal experiences is thus an entirely valid way of communicating. Why, for example, would I want to write in generalities about China’s voracious recycling industry when I can just tell people that I share a single garbage-bin (which is continously being treasure-hunted) with 100 other familes and let the reader figure it out from there?
    My only exception to this “rule” of mine is China’s economics, which I cover as I think the mainstream financial press is, I believe, pretty crap at it.

  • http://www.chinalawblog.com Dan

    Geoff,
    Thanks for checking in. I checked out your blog and it’s excellent. I cannot even believe I had never seen it until now.
    I LOVE good noodle blogs. I loved James Fallows’ blog when he was in China. I even defended it in a post: http://www.chinalawblog.com/2007/12/looking_out_airplane_windows_i.html.
    My beef was with the proliferation (around three or four years ago) of personal blogs that said nothing. I think good observational blogs are crucial and the bloggers attached to them are the DeToquevilles of our day.

  • http://seeingredinchina.com Tom

    Thank you for taking the time to review my blog, and placing it in the same realm as some of these other great sites.
    Any quality found in my writing is the result of my wife’s wonderful editing and oversight.

  • Another Dan

    You really should compile a full list of all the really good China blogs not on your blogroll.

  • http://wangbo.blogtown.co.nz Chris Waugh

    Loud conversation? Really?
    But thanks for the vote of confidence.

  • Tim

    @Damjam – I vaguely remember it but don’t really have an opinion about the blog.
    If anyone knows where the archive of Sinocidal might be lurking it would be great to reminisce.

  • Andy Z.

    Thanks for consistently highlighting the top China reads. The China blog world has shrunk but there are still many good ones out there.

  • G. Osborne

    I am a fan of these blogs too and it is good to see so many of them lasting so long.

  • Ian Thubronen

    The problem with many of the China blogs is the fact that by definition they cost little to set up and get operational, and no code of conduct or regulatory body governs them. Many simply do not even moderate comments, and practically none employ an editor to thin out worst excesses. As a result, many China blogs tend to be partisan, self indulgent and often carry inaccuracies that don’t fit into their own methodology, ideology or freindship. Whether or not the blog model has run it’s course is not for me to say, however the non-edited approach to serious matters is a weakness and I personally believe blogs are on the wane.

  • Stu Stewart

    Blogs are just one way to convey information. These days, many who would be “noodle-blogging” are speaking to their followers via Twitter, Facebook, or Google+, all of which make sense for certain forms of communication. Blogs are still alive, as they should be, but what is really dying off are publications. The readership of magazines and books on China seems to be disappearing.