As some of you may have noticed, a week has gone by since my biorhythmically disastrous arrival in the PRC. Beginning to describe this past week will – inevitably – be difficult, but here goes my typing word-vomit (in the order it comes to my brain).
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I’ve never really considered the challenges of illiteracy. I think as college-educated folk, we tend to forget just how fucking-goddamn-hard it is to live somewhere when you are – in effect – illiterate. Having left China at the age of four, I have the vocabulary of a four-year-old + 3 years of Chinese school during middle school + whatever my parent’s colloquial home speech has been (“Ta ma de!”, “Wo zou ni!”, “Wan dan le”) [roughly translated as: “Motherfucker!” or more kindly, “his/her mama!”; “I’m going to beat the crap out of you”, the tone is usually stated as more of a threat; and “You’re doomed”.] + what gets shown on CCTV at night in my parent’s kitchen. In effect, I’m useless when it comes to anything more sophisticated than some street-talk or sucking up to family members.
As far as writing and reading goes, my predicament is even worse: I barely paid attention in Chinese school, did my homework on the car-ride over, and probably cheated on every exam with my cousin, Ro, during our 3 years of school attendance in White Plains. Having just misordered my lunch, I am now paying for it.
Here are a few examples of how illiteracy and poor grammar can hurt:
(1) At the airport Border Control, Chinese side [spoken in Mandarin. The security guard, unknown Mandarin dialect. Myself, heavy Beijing accent].
“Can you write your name in Chinese?”
“Yes, one minute please. Let me just find my visa application. It’s on there.”
“You mean, you don’t know how to write your name?”
“Well, I know how to write my nickname, but I never use my formal name.”
“Is it your real name?” [oh, shit]
“Yes, I’m sorry, I’m not used to writing it out in Chinese.”
“Why don’t I help you? Which Xie is it?” [fumbles around and writes several Xie’s, which I can recognize and know aren’t correct] [insert footnote: I know it’s not correct since my father specifically selected, from ancient Chinese poetry, the Xie, which I am convinced now he did in foresight that I would lose all abilities to write Chinese and wanted to punish me for it 25 years later. FYI, though, Xie Yue means (a) in rough translation, “taking the moon” (b) in inefficient translation, “stepping on a ladder to climb to and reap the moon” (c) in totally imprecise but concise translation, “ambitious” and (d) in a masculine translation, “unfearing of unearthly challenges”.]
“No, those aren’t it. I know, I can’t spell it myself, but I know those aren’t it.”
“Don’t worry about it.” [I see my father’s eyes in his disapproving nod.]
(2) Telephone conversation in Hotel to have my room cleaned [in Mandarin].
“Hi, hotel services.”
“Can you send clean room?”
“I [fumble with words for ‘want’] clean room.”
“Do you want us to send someone to clean your room?”
(3) Ordering food.
[While I point to a specific noodle dish, where I recognize a few words like “noodle”, “vegetable”, and “tofu”]
“So do these noodles have meat in them?”
“Yes, they do. Where it says, ‘meat’”.
“Ok, what about vegetables. What kind of vegetables?”
“It says here, mushrooms, cabbage and tomato.”
“Right ok. This one, then.”
I think part of what confuses waitresses, waiters, hotel service, police officers, etc is that my pronunciation is perfect. So upon first impression, I fool them for a good minute or two until I reveal that I have the literacy of a toddler.
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Of course, I should give due credit to one of my best friends who trekked a visit to Beijing to spend some time with me, Mr. DCS. Mr. DCS’s language abilities for Mandarin include, and is limited to, a mispronunciation of “xie xie” [“thank you”].
I should also explain before-hand that Mr. DCS had been traveling through South Asia, and after having been defeated by the developing world through a number of mishaps relating to his work harvesting corneas in Nepal, decided to cut his plans short to come directly to Beijing. We agreed that his primary purpose was to walk me to class and carry my books. Mr. DCS also decided one day prior to his visit that he would become vegetarian during his stay in China. Our conversation, roughly, went as follows:
“So, uh, I’m going to be vegetarian in China.”
“Do you know how hard that’s going to be?”
“Ya. I also haven’t showered and have no clean clothes.” [amongst many other talents, Mr. DCS is extremely good at juxtaposing two completely random and different thought processes, which results in my playing mind-juggle for a few moments before I can figure out what is causally following what.]
Mr. DCS also does not eat anything that resembles a hot pepper [insert footnote: now, those of you who know me, this is a serious matter. There’s a saying that one can tell a lot about a woman by what she carries in her purse. This is what I currently carry in mine: a bottle of ibuprofen, a box of paperclips, Nabokov’s “Lolita” (and no, smartass, I'm not into that, but it happens to be the book of the month), some paper and pens, candy, wallet, cell phone, and a bottle of hot sauce.]
Ordering for one when you’re as illiterate as me is hard enough. Ordering for two under the above circumstances, you begin to feel the responsibility really weigh in. On top of that, it was imperative that Mr. DCS not open his mouth and say anything because I was convinced we’d get ripped off. Luckily, while I was teaching during the daytime, my cousin’s husband, S— Ge took care of Mr. DCS and the two went on tours together. Of course, as expected, some pretty funny things resulted from this.
Amongst the usual photos that kids asked to take of Mr. DCS, there involved one incident when S—Ge lost Mr. DCS at the Great Wall. Some background to set the tone of how serious this was: my extended family is currently run under the watchful eye of my oldest Aunt, Da Yi. Her powers are enormous. Having found out that Mr. DCS and I would arrive in Beijing around August 6, she had sent S—Ge on a 13 hour night train from Louyang, without beds, to come take care of us. She had prepared months worth of cash, a cell phone, tea, food, clothing, and so on for me as well. Given that it was also Mr. DCS’s first visit to China, the family was on extra-alert (i.e., they would call the US to speak to my mom to get information on how I was doing, and then they would send S—Ge to deal with it).
Anyway one day while I was teaching, S—Ge took Mr. DCS to the Great Wall. Mr. DCS, having gotten a taste for the 1 billion population in China, decided that he would no longer continue his hike on the Great Wall and told S—Ge he would head toward the train station and wait for him there. A few communication fumbles later, Mr. DCS found himself running to try to catch the train. However, S—Ge had decided that they would catch a later train, and when he came to find Mr. DCS at the agreed upon meeting spot, Mr. DCS had disappeared. I’m not one who claims to know too much about Chinese culture, but even I can say that if you lose your foreign guest at the Great Wall of China, you’re in pretty deep shit with your mother-in-law, who also happens to be the anthropological head of the entire household. This was why, when Mr. DCS returned to the meeting spot, random Chinese families kept motioning to him to stay put and frantically tried to tell him, in Chinese, that he was being searched for.
I found out later that apparently Mr. DCS’s whereabouts were being broadcasted over the CCTV intercom, “Will the white, foreign man please come to the ticket office? If you find a white, foreign man walking around, please alert the ticket office!”
[Note: Mr. DCS, thank you so much for your visit. My Da Yi is very relieved to know that you have arrived in San Francisco safely.]
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Finally, of course – and as some of you may know well about my update emails/journal entries – I’m at my best pissed off. I’ll end my discourse with a rant.
Last night, I went to dinner with two other teachers, my friend R and this other teacher, who I will name X and who I will openly admit would have been objectively handsome had he not opened his mouth. I consider myself to be fairly patient when it comes to people, since I live by this belief that if you understand someone, you can like them regardless of the number of dip-shitted things they do. I am convinced, however, that X may be from another planet and is therefore immune to all basic social standards that most people on Earth abide by.
I’ve never been exposed to academia-ladder-climbing-wannabes until this year. My experience with graduates and post-graduate students had only been immensely positive in the past, and I can’t tell if it’s an LSE phenomenon, a social science phenomenon, or that in the past three or so years since I’ve been in school, an odd viral disease has been spreading through the academic world to turn normal people into qualified assholes (or, in my words into “aggressive nerds”).
I can only explain this through conversation:
“So what did you study before LSE?” - X
“Physics…” [insert interruption]
“Oh, yes, I was quite advanced in physics. I just loved doing problems in my room, but I realized it just wasn’t enough for me as an undergraduate and moved to political philosophy because I cared about the world… [insert long monologue – approximately 5-7 min – about self-importance, wrong facts about physics, how awesome self is, how fucking smart self is, how much self will accomplish things. Gets hungry and stops talking for a bit to eat bite of dinner.] ”.
“Oh, I studied some philosophy, too…” [insert interruption]
“Yes, philosophy is just one of my 4 degrees. I have a master’s in…[insert names of masters degrees that yours truly cannot remember for the life of her because she began to tune out and listen to the conversation in the booth next door since it was far more interesting.]”
…and so on…here’s another example:
“Yes, so my family didn’t want me to go to Sudan since my father wanted me to take over the family business” – R [badass, motherfucker, in my opinion]
“AH, yes I had a similar problem. My family is split between engineers and doctors…[insert long monologue about how self was alienated from family due to self’s unique and difficult trek through finding philosophy, political science, international relations, deep studies about conflict and war, anthropology, sociology, psychology but how X found his way to studying a phD with eminent Professor—at the LSE.]
…oh, and my personal favorite of the night:
“My female students keep hitting on me. It’s just quite uncomfortable. I’m not good at dealing with it. I’m attracted to intelligence.” – X
“Well, why did you go drinking with them then?” – R
[R’s question is ignored and a long monologue from X followed, leading to the next gem of a quotation.]
“So after my time researching in Afghanistan, I just found anything unrelated to war-zones so boring. For example, I was on a date with this girl, and she kept explaining her career to me and what she was studying. I just found her so hard to focus on. She was so boring. Life is so boring without aerials flying overhead.” – X
“You’re fucked up.” – yours truly. [to which X smiled, R smirked, and X probably thought to himself: I see she has fallen in love with me. She sees that I am a tortured soul and therefore must want me. My intellect is so powerful that she couldn’t help but be sucked into the gravitational pull of the huge brainy body that is me. I am like a God. I am like a blackhole God.]
Here’s my ending advice to men like this:
(1) Most academically geared women are surrounded by intelligent people. They don’t give a fuck how many master’s or PhD degrees you have because chances are, they have their own. Please don’t try to impress women with the number of degrees you have. Personally, listening your degrees and qualifications is like listing the number of video games you have for your Xbox 360. I don’t give a fuck.
(2) Please don’t sit at dinner with two women and tell them how boring you find it to have dinner with women who aren’t involved in war catastrophes.
(3) There are certain social standards of behavior for people who live on earth. Before the age of adulthood, please try to learn what they are. Then please use your manners.
(4) You are thirty-years-old. No one cares how you did in freshman physics.
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I hope you’ve enjoyed these highlights. China is wonderful. I have great students, a great professor, and an infinite supply of support from family and friends.
Pan Pan August 14, 2011