Thursday, November 24, 2011

The China Diaries: Happy Thanksgiving

I spent Thanksgiving at a friend's apartment, with 10 other expat teachers from Xi'an. We sat and talked, we drank a bit, and we ate a surprisingly delicious turkey, with mashed potatoes, green beans, and a home-made apple pie. It was one of the nicest Thanksgivings I've experienced. That feeling of being able to do something nice on a holiday when you might reasonably expect to be left with a normal day made it all the better. Watching the Brits try and carve a turkey for the first time made it great. I never new "Thanksgiving" could sound like a foreign word until now.

A Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The China Diaries: Disney English

Products for children are some of the best ways to learn a language. Be they childrens' books, childrens' tv programs, or childrens' movies, they provide fairly simple language in a natural context. I have a sizable collection of childrens' books in Japanese, a few in Portuguese (though I was able to spring for a slightly higher age-level with those), and now I've begun to amass a collection of Chinese books.

The Chinese members of staff at school are very encouraging with this. They help me read the characters, providing me with the pronunciation and the meaning when I need it. This week's project was 纽扣,掉地上了!, "The Button That Fell on the Ground!". I learned how to say 星星, which is Chinese for "star". Huge. I also learned the title, which is a bit more beneficial to everyday life. I drop a lot of things.

I've taken to watching Disney movies (surprise, surprise) in Chinese with the subtitles (also in Chinese). It's a pretty serious endeavor, really. Here you can see the notes I took while watching Beauty and the Beast. The left page is random sentences and bits of dialogue. I learned how to say "Bride" (新娘-it translates literally as "new mother," which would drive my Psychology of Women professor straight up a tree), "Change" (变), "Don't abandon me" (不要丢下我-I expect this to come in quite useful at some indeterminate and very unfortunate point in the future), and, as you may even be able to make out in the photo, "Stupid" (蠢-the Chinese staff are not happy I learned this). The right side is all the lyrics to "Beauty and the Beast." Why not, I say.

Tonight, I watched Cinderella. I learned some very useful things from the simple commands Cinderella would yell at Lucifer, the cat, such as "Come here!" (过来) and "Look what you did!" (你看你搞了). A few nights ago, I watched WALL-E. This was not so productive. There are about five lines of dialogue, and none of them were particularly pertinent to life. I did pick up how to say "Foreign contaminants detected" (外来污染源) and a fancy way of saying "Clean," (清楚完成). So that's good.

As a somewhat related aside, this weekend I told my most advanced students that I'd watched WALL-E. They looked at me uncomprehending, which was fair enough, so I said it in Chinese, 瓦力. They knew it instantly. I know this won't come across well via text, but the Chinese title is "Wa li." If you say "WALL-E" straight, they have no idea. If you say it with a bit of a hesitating quiver during the "wa" and a downward shot during the "li," they gotcha. Strange, strange language, Chinese.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The China Diaries: Baby's First Joke

I got in a taxi to go home last night.

"您好," I said. "高新四路。" All you've missed there is my saying my address.

He started to drive, and then asked, "英国人吗?" ("Are you an Englishman, good sir?")

"不是," I replied. "我是美国人。" Your imagination will guide you through this one just fine, I think.

This interaction is fairly routine. For reasons I've discussed before, it's a natural way to start a conversation with me in China. But then, I continued:

"您是中国人吗?" I asked him, with a completely straight face, "Are you Chinese?"

The telling of your first joke in a foreign language is always an occasion to be celebrated. It is a sign that certain levels of comfort and familiarity have been reached. When you are still at the earliest stages of learning a language, you are too busy trying to understand what's being said, and working too hard to say what you need to say, to make jokes. It's even better when they laugh boisterously, as this man did. My joke had clearly tickled him. It may have been somewhat insipid, but it hit its mark.

Taxi drivers in China come in a few flavors, much as they do in the U.S. Most are either silent or overly-chatty. The former are those who decide that a 外国人 cannot possibly speak Chinese. The latter are those who decide everyone in China can speak Chinese, and they are eager to talk to you, even when you clearly don't understand. Occasionally, though, you strike a wonderful middle-ground, where the driver is willing to talk, has clear pronunciation, and is willing to concede that, while you will understand some of what he says, you will not understand everything. I was also fortunate last night in this.

We talked a bit here and there. His speaking was very clear, and he slowed it down a little bit so I could keep up. He asked me if I have a girlfriend (they never believe me when I say no, presumably because I'm a westerner), and I asked him if he had a wife (Naturally, he does.) He showed me a picture of his daughter, whose English name is Mickey. It was not only the most pleasant and enjoyable interaction I've had with a stranger since I came to China, but since even before then. The last interaction I had like that was talking to an older married couple in EPCOT back in March. It was nice.

And, most important, I made a joke.

The China Diaries: Happy Holidays

I can still remember the feeling very clearly.

Sometime in the middle of October 2010, safely before Hallowe'en, I walked into the Home Depot where I worked to find the Christmas section had been set up. There were lights, stockings, bedeckment, and fake trees. Before Hallowe'en. It was, as far as I was concerned, the breaking of a sacred, unspoken agreement; "Alright, yes, retailers can start plugging Christmas before Thanksgiving, but I don't have to like it, and they have to wait until a few days after the Hallowe'en diabetic coma to wear off. All those lights give me a headache otherwise." Sacred agreements have rarely been so casually phrased.

Christmas has always started before Thanksgiving in my lifetime, but it seemed as though it had finally settled down. Last year was the first time I was aware that the holidays are still riding up on one another. I don't like it. I don't want to spend a quarter of my year getting to Christmas; the excitement surrounding a box you can't unwrap only builds for so long. Then it implodes.

One of the nice things about living in China the last few weeks has been my complete ignorance of Christmas encroaching. No ads on the TV, no promotional sales at the markets, no ceaselessly looping Christmas music. I can enjoy Christmas on my own schedule. As is my custom, the night of Thanksgiving, after dinner is over (we will be having a party for the teachers), I will go home and put on A Charlie Brown Christmas. The Christmas season will truly and honestly begin in that moment, for the first time in as long as I can remember.

For now, I count this as a blessing. Come December, I will miss having put up a Christmas tree, and, more than anything, I will miss walking up and down State Street and Michigan Avenue, taking in the cold and the decorations, listening to A Charlie Brown Christmas. I don't know that I've ever found a more peaceful place.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The China Diaries: Miscellania

I moved to a different district of Xi'an yesterday, to an apartment closer to the school. Here we have some pictures, which I've been told I don't post enough of. (I don't.)
This is the courtyard right outside my room. My previous residence had a courtyard full of grandparents playing with their children, which always made me happy. This one has a little pond, which is quite lovely, though I don't see it quite making up for the lack of family love.

Right around the corner from my building is a massive, maze-like (if you consider a straight-forward if dense grid to be maze-like) market, full of foods and clothes. This is the part I'm most excited about, and there will be plenty of pictures of it in the future. Here are a few pictures I took today while picking up some lunch.

When they aren't frying tofu, I don't mind it.

There is a lot of wonderful fresh fruit. Naturally, I always opt for the unhealthy foods available in the next stall. But one day I'll make a point of improving my diet. Seems easier to do here, as the healthy foods aren't substantially more expensive than the unhealthy ones like they are in the United States.
These are my favourite parts of China. The modern parts are boring.

* * * * *

In China, the washer and the dryer are the same machine. When the washing is done, the water drains, and instead of the machine heating up, it operates like a centrifuge, spinning so rapidly that most of the water in the clothes drains out. It works remarkably well, and I bet it doesn't take anywhere near as much energy. If at first it seems a bit on the strange side, I've come to feel that it makes considerably more sense than heat-producing driers. You may need to hang up the clothes for a bit afterward, but I imagine the drastic reduction in energy use more than makes up for it.

What's interesting to me is how the differences like these happen. In the US, a full-sized drier requires a special plug with a higher electrical output. If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say that Chinese appliance manufacturers came up with the centrifugal approach as a way to get almost the same effect without needing the larger electrical supply they knew most people would be unable to provide. It's clever. Very clever.

* * * * *

I bought a DVD of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse yesterday, figuring I could watch it to improve my listening skills. I now know how non-native English speakers must feel when they first hear Donald Duck speak. It's not a welcoming feeling.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The China Diaries: Post

About a month ago, as some of you will remember, I finally figured out the Chinese postal service. It has come to my attention in the intervening month that none of my friends have received their letters. Even those to whom I sent letters five weeks ago still have not received them. The Chinese Government makes a regular habit of checking incoming parcels. Packages are typically opened and inspected before being moved on. They often confiscate things from said packages. It feels safe to assume that letters are occasionally subject to such things as well.

I have sent mail to foreign countries before, and I am aware that not all systems are as reliable as the Candian, U.S., British, and French postal systems. *cough* *cough* Brasil *cough* Having said that, aware of the likelihood that my letters are just slowly making their way, I still like to imagine one of two things: 1) There's a somewhat sweaty, slightly obese Chinese man sitting at a desk with a Charleston Chew he confiscated from a parcel intended for an English teacher somewhere in the country, slowly working his way through my dense, indecipherable prose with a Chinese-English dictionary, looking for key phrases like "once these people get a taste of Democracy," or "the gift of information which we work to bestow upon the working classes will help them to one day overthrow their repressive shackles," or "I hear Mao smelled like fart", OR, 2) The letters are in a crate marked with my name, in a warehouse not a little like the one where the Ark of the Covenant gets stored at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

* * * * *

In an update, the letters I posted on 23 September arrived in America on 7 November. It's still fun to imagine, though.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

After Hours

I have never been a big fan of The Velvet Underground. It's a point of fact, and I know that the Music Literati in me should be horrified, but there you go. No shame. Just acceptance. I do, however, love the song that closes their third album, "After Hours". It's simple, catchy, melodic, endearing, even charming. It is in all likelihood the only charming thing Lou Reed has ever done, in music or otherwise.

This morning, as I was walking around the city center, I started humming "After Hours" to myself, which is something I do with a fair amount of frequency. It used to be that when my mind wasn't doing anything, it would play "For No One" by The Beatles, as though the song were always looping in there somewhere, but it does so too quietly to be heard over conscious thought. Nowadays, the songs change, but "After Hours" comes up regularly.

This time was different, though. It wasn't being sung in a woman's voice; it was being sung by Johnny Cash. And it fit so thoroughly, so perfectly, that I decided I must have heard it somewhere before. I can imagine singers singing material they've never, to my knowledge, sung, but it always sounds a bit wonky. I can imagine Brett Anderson out of Suede singing "After Hours", but it sounds like someone imitating Brett Anderson singing "After Hours". This really, truly sounded like Johnny Cash giving it a go. I could hear the cracks in his voice brought on by old age, that patriarchal aura he could bring to any song he wanted. It fit.

When I got home, I checked iTunes. "Maybe," I thought, "he recorded it for one of the American Recordings, and I've just forgotten which one." No luck. I searched Youtube. I checked Wikipedia. Nothing. And yet I can still hear it, perfectly, as though it were real. Knowing now that it is not, I hope it never fades. I get to hear the Johnny Cash song nobody else did, as though he made it just for me.

The China Diaries: Foreigner? Me?

During the day, when all the working-age members of the population are at work, the grandparents tend to their grandchildren. It is one of the aspects of Chinese culture I can unreservedly say I love. It would be one of the things I would list in the "Reasons to settle in China" column. I do realize it's not isolated to China, or even to Asia, but it's the first place where I've been provided with such rampant evidence.

In my apartment block, the grandparents play with their grandchildren in the courtyard. Yesterday, walking to get some breakfast, I passed by a trio of these pairings. One of the children pointed at me and said, as they do, "外国人!" ("Foreigner!") I turned around and walked over.

"我不是外国人。我是中国人。" ("I am not a foreigner. I am Chinese."), I said. The grandmothers thought it was pretty funny, and began laughing. One of them held up their charge, asking him, "Is this man Chinese?" The child I'd spoken to, on the other hand, was confused. You could see on his face that his mind was struggling with this. "He can't be Chinese," it was debating. "But he said he is... and he said it in Chinese."

It's the little joys.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The China Diaries: The Language Barrier

I've been without internet at home for the last week or so. As a result, I've not spoken with my mom in about two weeks, which may well be the longest we've ever gone without speaking to one another. She called me this evening to see how I was doing and to check on flight information for my brief return to the U.S. in January. It was, of course, nice to hear her voice.

A funny thing happened, though; while I was talking to her, a Chinese member of the staff came over to ask me a question. I wrote 我妈妈 ("My mother") in Chinese on a notepad while still listening, and responding to, my mother in English. This was, apparently, close to too much; my mind felt as though two people had grabbed each of the hemispheres and pulled in opposite directions. It was a weird, weird feeling. Translating is one thing; I've done that. But literally, simultaneously communicating in two languages, one through speaking and one through writing, is a strange thing.

I look forward to trying it again in the future. Strange, yes, but oddly intriguing.