If you have a lemon, make lemonade

By Gene M. Owens(China Daily)
Updated: 2006-11-18 06:00

I read with delight the fascinating Chinese folk story about an old man who
tried to move mountains ( China Daily, 9/11/2006). The story, known as
yugong yishan, tries to instil the virtues of persistence. My Chinese
friends and colleagues confirmed that the story is well known to every
Chinese school child.

In America, where I grew up, we have similar stories that try to instil in
young people the values of determination and persistence in tackling
difficult barriers faced in life.

Perhaps one of the more enjoyable stories as told by parents in the United
is The Little Engine That Could. This is a children's fantasy
storybook about a young railroad engine that is concerned that he will not
have the strength to climb the rails over the hill.

The young railroad engine's mother tells him that he can succeed in climbing
over the hill by continuing to repeat the term "I think I can! I think I

For the reader it is important to repeat these phases with the same cadence
as the sound of a railroad engine: choo, choo, choo . . . choo, choo, choo .
. . I think I can . . . I think I can . . . choo, choo, choo.

Yes, the young engine succeeds and begins to speed down the other side of
the hill, shouting, "I knew I could! I knew I could!"

Returning to the Chinese folklore surrounding yugong yishan, most
entertaining to me as a foreigner were the attitudes of the two German
friends toward the old man's insistence that the only means of resolving the
problem of the two mountains was for the family to remove it by hand, even
if the task took generations to achieve. One German friend suggested using
some kind of machine, and the other German suggested moving the house away
from the two mountains.

My reaction to the Chinese folk story as an American, and also someone
involved in environmental economics, was: "Why would anyone want to remove a
mountain?" Of course, this attitude drew raised eyebrows, and shouts of:
"You don't understand what the story is all about" from my Chinese friends
around the dinner table.

Maybe so, but in an effort to promote intercultural understanding, I related
to my Chinese friends the typical American response to yugong yishan. If a
mountain was in the way, rather than removing it, the response would be to
figure out some way to use it, and, better, to make some money using it.

The American counterpart to the old man in the Chinese story would try to
find some unsuspecting traveller, convince him that there was a secret trail
up the mountainside.

The old American man would show the innocent traveller how to get up the
mountain, for only a dollar. It is likely that the old man in America would
also convince the traveller that once they were on the mountaintop, then
they could see "enlightenment." Of course, that might cost an extra dollar.

To promote intercultural awareness, I told my friends that this tendency to
take something bad or distasteful and change it into something good and
worthwhile is known in America by the phrase, "if you have a lemon, make

A lemon is a sour fruit, but also a phrase used to describe a bad product.
If one buys something a car, an electronic device and it does not work as
intended, it is described as "a lemon." But if one adds water and sugar to
the juice of the lemon, the result is lemonade a delightfully refreshing
drink. So the tendency in the United States is to try to be innovative, to
add something new. In short, if you have a lemon, to make lemonade.

What we all agreed around the dinner table that evening was that it was the
intercultural sharing of ideas and stories from folklore that would benefit
all cultures.

Whether it was the centuries of persistence of the Chinese, or the
practicality of the Germans, or the innovation of the Americans, these
traits were now coming together today at a rapid pace to enrich all of us.

(China Daily 11/18/2006 page10)