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Pandas Sent Back to China Criticized for Having Lost Touch with their Roots

Like any other expat: don't like the food, can't converse

Chinese returning home from abroad often get called “sea turtles” due to a play on the words “return from overseas”. During their time away, overseas Chinese can become unfamiliar to locals due to their picking up new habits and customs. This same thinking has been applied to a pair of panda bears returning to China that have become “Westernized” during their time away.

Three year-old sisters Meilun and Meihuan are said to be experiencing “culture shock” since their arrival at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding on November 5.

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As it were, the giant pandas are finding it difficult to fit in during the month-long quarantine because, like any new expat to China, they don’t speak the language and they don’t like the food.

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As the China Daily reports, Meilun and Meihuan cannot understand the Sichuan dialect spoken by trainers at the research base. Aside from their names, the pandas don’t respond to the phrases “Have you eaten?” and “Did you have a good time?” spoken by panda trainer Luo Yunhong. Instead, the wild animals understand basic English phrases such as “come here.”

Settling down for the pandas is especially difficult since they are fussy with their food, choosing only to eat “American-style” biscuits instead of Chinese steamed corn bread (wowotou).

In fact, Luo said the new arrivals prefer to eat biscuits so much that everything they eat – from bamboo to apples and even water –must be mixed with the biscuits.

“It hasn’t been easy feeding them local food,” said Luo. “The ingredients are the same, but they still prefer the flavor of biscuits to wowotou,” he said, adding that they have “similar nutritional ingredients but different flavors result from different preparation methods.”

However, the concept that two panda bears have been “Westernized” may be due to the cultural biases of the Chinese newspapers reporting the story.

Meihuan and Meilun are like any youngster who has a preference for “American fast food”, as China Daily puts it. And yet, the “biscuits” they prefer aren’t Oreos, but something called “leafeater biscuits”, a type of prepared food that zoos use to feed leaf-eating animals.  It resembles neither American fast food nor Chinese food, because it’s animal food.

It looks something like this:

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And while it seems logical enough for Chinese news media to think that the national mascot of China should understand Chinese, it remains that pandas have their own language – something discovered at the same place where Luo works.

After a five year study, Chinese scientists decoded 13 vocalizations used by the giant panda that include “baa-ing” like sheep by male pandas during courtship and bird-like twittering by females to signal their readiness to mate. Panda cubs have a vocabulary that includes “Gee-Gee” (I’m hungry), “Wow-Wow” (Not happy!) or “Coo-Coo” (Nice!).

Since 2006, China has released seven pandas back into the wild after undergoing “survival training” in which the pandas are taught to be less reliant on humans, something that usually doesn’t involve taking orders from a human, like in a circus.

Despite the latest release last month, many pandas raised by the research base are destined to live in zoos where they are a huge tourist attraction. Visitors at a number of Chinese zoos can interact with pandas by posing with them in pictures, or feeding them treats on the end of sticks.

As a lucrative asset, Meilun and Meihuan will probably be worth even more due to their status as Westernized sea turtles. And yet, these pandas are in fact not Chinese by birth, despite being owned by China.

The twins were born on July 15, 2013 at Zoo Atlanta in Georgia, USA. Meihuan and Meilun received their Chinese names through a multiple-choice online poll of various Chinese names. Before last month, they have never been to China.

The twins have the distinction of being the first surviving pandas born in the US. As part of the agreement, any pandas born in captivity belong to China, and must be sent back upon adulthood where they will take part in breeding programs.

With Meihuan and Meilun both destined for motherhood, we can only hope that their cravings for “American fast food” during pregnancy won’t be too pronounced.

Charles Liu

The Nanfang's Senior Editor