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Letter Home #2

August 1, 2010

After not having spoken any Chinese for about a year and a half, my Chinese had degraded considerably.  I could understand people, but every time I opened my mouth English would come out.  Hard as I tried, I just couldn’t get Chinese sentences to flow right.  I would use a wrong word, put the words in the wrong order or simply incapable of remembering some critical vocabulary.  Moreover, I would take a while to think of every word that I would need to use, and Chinese is a very flow-y language because the tones change depending on which tones are near each other, seemingly bouncing around off one another, so stalling between every word renders the entire meaning incomprehensible.

Anyway, in just two weeks of class and 2.5 weeks of being in China I have gone from being unable to tell the lady at the train station what day I needed to take a train to having reasonably decent conversations with Chinese people.  Last night, Nathan and I went to the downtown area to have dinner.  Afterward, we went to a popular outdoor beer garden where we could get the local brew, Haerbin Pijiu (Harbin Beer)-which is, weirdly enough, owned by Anhueiser Bush-on draft.  We sat next to a group of middle-aged men who seemed to be celebrating something.  It was about 9:00, and they were all trashed.  Every few minutes they would stand on their benches break into song arm in arm, swaying back and forth.  Then one man put a pitcher of beer on top of his head before pouring the contained beer onto the head of the man sitting beside him.

Needless to say, we quickly began speaking with them.  They were all artists who worked at the local museum, which to a certain extant explains their public outrageousness.  Artists are somewhat on the periphery of Chinese society.  From what I know, they aren’t expected to be normal, and from I saw last night they took pride in that.  After sitting down with the two of us, we began the same conversation that you have with every Chinese person.  You would think that these encounters were scripted, and thoroughly regulated by the government were you judging them by the regularity of the questions.

What country are you from?

Where in America are you from?

Are you and exchange student?

Are you studying Chinese?

Then things got more interesting as we learned that they were artists, and had recently returned from Russia to show their art, so we took some pictures after speaking for a while, and then they gave us cards.  Nathan and I are investigating visiting their museum.  This is about where the conversation gets foggy and my Chinese gets better.

My Chinese is disappointingly crippled by my tendency to get really nervous, but after a few beers, this phenomenon vanishes just like my memory of my conversations.  I asked Nathan about how I was speaking this morning, and he conferred, my Chinese had improved dramatically after drinking.  Without realizing it I began doing a few Chinese-y speed practices.  There’s more to it than just this, but as an example my tones began to meld together like a song, and I would finish every phrase with this “ahh.” Most Chinese words end in vowels, and Chinese people often add an “ahh” or an “uhh” on the end of their words.  If I tell someone my English name, they invariably reply, “Teemuhh?” Anyway, I’m so glad I was able to do this language program because if nothing else, the time here has served as an excellent buffer to just arriving in China and having to take care of a lot of different things in Chinese.

Also, as depressing as it sounds, drinking reduces my dissatisfaction for the problems here.  I’m much more ambivalent about the annoyances of being in China, yes there are many, and much more in awe of the surrealism of the entire experience and my messily cross-cultural life.  Furthermore, I have remembered my interest in the Chinese language itself.  It’s hard to describe just how different this language is.  But something that always interests me is how the syllabic aspect of the language makes it so much more flexible.  The language is syllabic in that each character refers to a syllable, you can’t break the language up more than that grammatically speak, unlike in languages which are more alphabetic.  Chinese people are simultaneously lazy and emotionally expressive at the same time.  An example, the airport = fei ji chang = literally, fly machine field, but Chinese people never actually say this, they only say, “ji chang,” or machine field.  And the tones really lend an expressive quality to language, if you’re angry the rise and fall of the tones will emphasize your emotions.  So tones rise and fall much more when people are emotional.

Now, I don’t want you all thinking that I’ve become an alcoholic while I’m in China.  I’m simply relaying some unexpected benefits of drinking in a place that is about is about as overwhelming as it gets.  Dumbing yourself down to a certain extent, or whatever you want to call drinking, brings an otherwise unattainable ability to relax in China… or just not be on the edge of your seat.

Another sign that my Chinese has improved was seen in my dream last night.  For some reason, I usually remember dreams after drinking.  It was a few years after I had returned to the US after being in China for a while, and Allyson was helping me unpack stuff and I was explaining a Chinese-ism to her.  In Chinese if you repeat an adjective, say “happy” or gaoxing, which becomes gaogaoxingxing, then it means very –adjective, so in this case, very happy.

Ok, enough Chinese lessons.

After leaving the beer garden, we headed home at around 11:30ish to miss the 11:00 curfew (yes, they do that here), so we had to bang on the fuwuyuan’s (general term for service person, waitress, person behind the desk etc.) window, so he could unlock the chain lock wrapped around the handles of the doors.  We went up to our floor to hang our with a couple of friends in their room down the hall.  Italians, Englishmen, Japanese, a Canadian and me made it a pretty diverse room of only 7 or 8 people.  This multinationalism is more or less standard protocol around here.  We spoke a mix of English and Chinese depending on whatever was more practical with whoever was involved and the specific situation being described.

There is a unique pidgin that emerges in these programs that I have decided to begin to share with you.  Referring to uniquely Chinese phenomena, situations and nouns with English is simultaneously unspecific and inaccurate.  So we’ll call the people working at the dorm  fuwuyuans, always corrupting the Chinese nouns with English grammar-there is pretty minimal use of the plural in Chinese, it’s a relatively recent concept in Chinese grammar, likely influenced from abroad, like many new changes in the language, such as the addition of a character for the feminine 3rd person pronoun.  This also happens with words that are used more frequently in Chinese, because often it takes a minute to remember the English word.  I have already experienced several problems with my English.  For example, today I said that I had to do a “two-take,” this sounded funny when it came out of my mouth, but it took Nathan and I about half a minute to remember “double-take.”

While we were sitting in my friend’s room last night, we were asking the Japanese girl if she could hear the difference between my accent, Hugh the Englishmen’s accent and the Italian girl’s accent (no).  All of a sudden, the Italian girl exploded on me.  “You Americans, always with your (insensitivity to others problems with English or something like that)….” I listened quietly to her rant until she was done, and I said, “Hi, I’m Tim, what’s your name?” to demonstrate that I knew nothing about her, and she knew nothing about me.  Afterward, I told Hugh, that there are only so many times that I can deal with this pretentious European bullshit in a cool-headed rational manner.  He said that Europeans watch a lot of TV, and don’t really question what the TV shows say.

Later the same group of Italians kept me up with their obnoxious party rap, think Shaggy.  I remembered Allyson’s descriptions of the hypocrisy of Europeans consuming all sorts of different American products from media to clothing, then telling you, as an American, about how stupid Americans are.  “Oh, so we’re dumb. Thanks for the tip.  I’ll have to keep that in mind in the future.  Real helpful.”

In the two and a half weeks that I’ve been here, Europeans have asked me, in all seriousness, on three separate occasions whether or not I have guns. Who do we blame for having to deal with these ridiculous stereotypes, the George Bush types or the silly Europeans?  I blame both, and I find the two equally distasteful.

Tonight, I went out to eat at one of the nicest restaurants I have ever been to-and would never choose to go to, if I had the ability.  But as a cultural experience, I found it totally valuable.  It was a Japanese tongxue’s (literally, same study, meaning classmate) birthday so some of her close friends had decided to throw a surprise party for her at this Japanese restaurant.  I imagine, when the yakuza ran things in Tokyo in the 1980s, they would eat at places like this.  I rode there with Hugh, the Englishman, and Arnold, a Korean-Canadian.  We arrived to and went into the nearest door after stepping out of the cab, which of course was wrong, we told them that we were meeting some Japanese friends who had already arrived, they took us outside to another entrance down the block, where we walked through a zen rock garden and were escorted by an army of fuwuyuan’s each of whom bowed to us as we walked by.  They took us to massive private room with paper doors and a table of about  16’ diameter, of course, equipped an equally large lazy susan.  A few stylish Japanese guys sat on the room’s sofa smoking.  This is, of course, totally fine here.  Soon our friend arrived and the food began swooping around our shoulders onto the lazy susan in front of us.  Hugh, Arnold and I stumbled through Chinese conversations, consulting each other for forgotten vocabulary and criticizing each others’ accents to our Japanese tongxue’s.  And failing to describe random things like the Japanese game shows where couples do ridiculous things like wear (the stuff that sticks together, the name of which has lost me along with the rest of my English) run and jump onto a wall and stick there.  And hushing one another when topics like the discrepancies between the German and Japanese opinions on WWII came up.  And were shocked at the surreality of having a conversation about where the best marijuana in Japan grew (I think he said Nagoya).

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a Japanese friend, Tonno, last week.

“Do you hate China? It sounds like you hate China?” he asked.

“Hahaha. I don’t know. What do you mean? Do you hate China?” I replied.

“Yes, I hate China. People are rude, noisy ….”

“Well, the way I describe it is that I don’t think China is a comfortable place, but I do think it is an interesting place.  What really gets to me is the lack of appreciation for culture and history at the expense of making money though.  Look at all these disgusting new glass buildings right next to this beautiful Russian 19th century building….”

Wish me luck tomorrow; they said the hot water might be fixed by tomorrow evening.  It’s been gone for a couple of days.  Bie zhaoji ah! Don’t worry about it, the fuwuyuan says.  Hao de. Ok, sure.

Another day in China is another day of constantly having your expectations, no matter how unexcitable you are, blown away.

Lastly, put my flickr and/or blog’s RSS feeds flickr’s and blog‘s in your email or google reader, I have been posting on both of them, and I plan on continuing to do so.  Allyson is the only one that I know reads my blog on a consistent basis (much love to you Allyson).  The more you comment and reply, the more I know that you appreciate receiving these informations.  Sometimes I’m unsure if everyone’s really interested in hearing about my exploits. So the more I hear back from you the more I’m motivated to give you guys all the weird details that I probably shouldn’t tell mom, but I do because that’s just how it is sometimes right?

Lots of love,


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