Tuesday, May 30, 2006

China Stories Pt. 4: Thepeopletalkfast

In most places, the Chinese language that is taught is the "standard" Mandarin dialect. It is the most widely spoken; it is the official language, both in the PRC and in Taiwan*. It is the dialect that connects a country that has countless hundreds of dialects. Some dialects, such as Cantonese, are spoken by tens of millions of people. Others are vanishing, spoken by a scant few dozen people in remote areas.

Local dialects can vary wildly, even over short distances. In some places, a person could go just a few towns over, and not understand the local language. Imagine going from Washington to New York, and not being able to communicate with a taxi driver. Okay, bad example. But you get the idea.

I was learning the accent most common to northeast China, considered by many to be the "standard" accent. "Standard" was good in this case. Being told that your accent was "very standard" was high praise. Ideally, we would all sound like the evening news anchors on China Central Television.

But the average Beijinger's accent is not quite so standard. First of all, they speak very quickly, much more quickly than any of my language teachers ever had. And the Beijing accent in particular involves adding an "err" sound to the end of many words. So "mian tiao" became "mian tiaor." It was as though we'd gone from studying Peter Jennings to talking to Larry the Cable Guy.

With time and practice, I was able to understand the Beijing accent pretty well. Those "err's" even began to appear in my speech. I grew to love the way it sounds.

It's funny, even now, I can be sitting in a restaurant, and forty feet behind me, over my shoulder, I can pick that distinctive Beijing accent out of a crowd.

*In the PRC they call it "Putonghua;" in Taiwan, it's "Guoyu." But it's essentially the same.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

China Stories Pt 3: I order noodles

I lived at Shao Yuan*, the foreign students' dormitories. Building number four, back and to the right. The facilities were, like the airport, rather spartan, and had an antiquated feel to them. The main building was four or five stories, U-shaped. The center housed offices and classrooms. The wings were dorm rooms. Behind the main building were three other buildings: two dormitories and a cafeteria.

The cafeteria was basically like any cafeteria-- a kitchen, some lines. Rows of tables. They didn't accept money. Rather, you had to buy "fan piao," literally, rice tickets, in varying denominations with which you could then "pay" for food. They were little plastic tickets about the size of a domino, and they had the denominations written on them in Chinese characters. I remember thinking that this was kind of cool- I mean, these little things were kind of like the ration tickets that people used to get for all their food-- one kind for rice, another for cooking oil, and so forth.

My first trip to the cafeteria was a little scary because it dawned on me that for the first time since I had started studying Chinese, I was about to have a transaction with someone who did not also speak some English. A moment of truth.

There were several different lines at the cafeteria-- a couple of lines for Chinese dishes, a line for "Western" food (a concession to the barbarians). (I later discovered that they also sold milk that came in bags, and freshly baked bread that was excellent.)

As I recall, I got in line for something I knew how to say: noodles. I would get a bowl of noodles. As the line inched forward, I became more nervous, and rehearsed the line in my head. I dreaded the idea that I might be forced to resort to pointing-- as a student of the language at Bei Da? Oh, the shame.

Finally, there I was, at the font of the line. I was face to face with this cook wearing a t-shirt and apron, both stained. He looked kind of sweaty, kind of greasy - like he'd been sauteed.

"Qing lai yi wan mian tiao," I managed to get out.

He turned and walked away from me, without saying anything. What happened? Did I fail? Could he tell how clueless I was?

A moment later he returned, and dropped a bowl of noodles on my tray. Then he spoke.

"Yi kuai ba," he said. Oh, crap. I hadn't really worked through any scenarios where I would have to comprehend his reply. I must have looked like an idiot, standing there with my noodles and my mouth hanging open.

"Yi kuai ba," he repeated. He looked at my hand. Where I was holding my meal tickets.

Oh right! I had to pay. He was saying how much it cost: 1.80. I gave him two 1 RMB coupons, and got a .20 back. I was off and running now.

*The literal translation of "Shao Yuan" is "spoon gardens," which we thought was meant as a little joke, since we barbarians didn't normally eat with chopsticks.

China Stories Pt. 2: Beijing


So I departed for China in January 1989. The first stop was Hong Kong, where the group would assemble before "going in" to Beijing. I ran into two of my former classmates from Middlebury, so I was relieved that already there were a couple of familiar faces. I was really excited, but also a little scared. I'd never been this far from home, for this long. I was 20 years old.

I checked into my room at the Hong Kong YMCA. I remember sleeping a lot, because of the jetlag, but I also made a note in my journal that my second day there, the day before we flew into China, was the day of George H. W. Bush's inauguration. I celebrated with a couple of beers at a watering hole in Kowloon called "Ned Kelly's Last Stand."

The next day we gathered our luggage, and after breakfast, headed to the airport to fly to Beijing. The People's Republic of China.

China! Where paper and gunpowder had come from, and later this peculiar form of Socialism. Where Chairman Mao had launched campaigns that amounted to massive social experiments. They sounded like science fiction, but they were not. I was utterly fascinated.

In the previous 40 years, China had undergone social and economic upheavals on a scale I could barely conceive of. Campaigns like the "Hundred Flowers" movement and the "Anti-Rightist" movement; the Great Leap Forward, which led to the deaths of 20 to 30 million people between 1959 and 1962; and the Cultural Revolution, in which young Chinese became Red Guards and turned into such a destructive, anarchic force that Mao had to call upon the People's Liberation Army to restore order.

Given the enormity of these movements, and the dire consequences of dissent, I was also fascinated by the trickle of dissent that had emerged in their aftermath. There was very little dissent, and it obviously took tremendous courage. I had heard of the Democracy Wall movement, and of the Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng, who had been jailed for writing an essay that advocated expanded individual liberties.

In 1987, just after I started studying Chinese, there had been some student protests. One of the senior leaders, Hu Yaobang, had been blamed for letting the protests grow too large, for being indulgent of the students, so he was forced out of power. I'd seen the protests on TV.

All of this was swirling in my head on the CAAC** flight to Beijing. As we descended, I took in the landscape: the farmland which had been subjected to the throes of collectivism; the farmers, who had been forced into communes; and finally, the city itself, Beijing.

Beijing was profoundly gray and colorless. The air was gray, the buildings were gray. At this time, even in 1989, although the majority of people had ceased to wear "Mao jackets," there was very little in the way of colorful clothing. And since it was a late winter afternoon, it was already getting dark. We disembarked by stairway onto the tarmac and walked to the terminal.

And the smell! Coal. My first, strongest and most lasting impression of Beijing.

It was winter, and Beijing stayed warm by burning coal. The air was heavy with the scent of burning coal. Not just the scent, actually; the air was also filthy. That was another of my early revelations, the black that was expelled whenever you blew your nose.

Every now and then I will catch a whiff of coal smoke. In an instant, I am right back there, a 20 year-old student stepping off the plane into the People's Republic of China, into this descending gray.

We entered the terminal, and then waited in line to go through customs and immigration. It was an imposing process. I'd had to send my passport away to get a visa, which took up a full page. I had had to fill out an entry card, a health declaration, and a customs declaration. Soon I would be standing in front of a uniformed official. In my mind, he was the People's Liberation Army.

The official, a young man probably in his twenties, took my passport and my cards. He looked them over. He looked up at me once. I did my best to strike a pose of respectful earnestness. He looked back down, sleepily stamped my passport, and slid it back to me.

I was in.

The airport had a ramshackle feel to it-- like we had somehow landed in the 1950s. Linoleum floors, dingy whitewashed walls. Rattling single pane windows. Considering that this was a major international capital, the airport seemed shockingly small and spartan. The international terminal had maybe 6 gates, and two luggage carousels.

As we waited for our luggage, the students continued to get to know each other. It was a diverse group-- ages ranging from 17 to 32. Students from all over the country. A high school teacher, who was accompanied by his wife; an older student who had been traveling and was applying to graduate schools; a girl whose family were expatriates living in Hong Kong.

(As an aside, I had noticed that by and large, my classmates in Chinese language classes were not particularly interesting. I had hardly met any that I wanted to spend time with outside of class. But in my group in Beijing, I met a few of the finest, most unforgettable people I know, whom I will introduce you to shortly.)

We boarded the bus for "Bei Da," as Peking University is called. Along the way, people began to find roommates. I was a little late in realizing this was going on, so I ended up with a roommate mostly by process of elimination. My roommate would be Chad. Chad was from California. He was taking a year off from Princeton. He'd just spent the fall living in Taiwan. He was a good looking guy, very social.

"Okay," I thought. "West coast guy, goes to school back east. And he's fun to hang out with. I think this will work out fine."

We dropped our bags and set off to explore our new surroundings.

*(There are, I believe, three different "YMCA" hotels in Hong Kong. It can be a little confusing when you don't know your way around. You tell a cab driver "YMCA" and he promptly takes you to a hotel you'd swear you've never seen before. Add to that some jetlag and general disorientation, and it'll mess with your head. For the record, we were at the one in Tsim Sha Tsui, in Kowloon.)

**Civil Aviation Administration of China- one of the many quaintly anachronistic, anti-capitalist names I have come to appreciate.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

China Stories Pt. 1: The College Years

So as I mentioned, I studied Chinese and lived in China. I have never really written about it, so I thought I would throw a few things down here about my China experiences.

I began studying Chinese at Middlebury College in the fall of 1986. It was just about the time of the tenth anniversary of the death of Mao Zedong (or if you prefer, Mao Tse-tung; same guy). Despite having been asked a lot, I am not entirely sure why I started studying Chinese. I think it was because it was exotic. I had been reading books about Buddhism and Chinese history, and it was so profoundly foreign, I thought it was cool. Plus, it seemed like a cool thing to be studying. I think I thought the ladies would find that interesting. (They did not.)

First-year Chinese is a pretty intense experience, and Middlebury is among the best places to study it. It takes a lot of work-- the Professor asked some people to drop it. I was proud of the fact that I was doing it, and I knew I would feel a great sense of accomplishment when I got through it.

If I remember correctly, at the beginning of the year, they told us that by the end of the year we would know something like 1,200 or 1,500 characters, and we would read this book which did NOT look like "See Spot Run" in Chinese.

In Chinese, words are represented by characters or combinations of characters, which are pictograms. There is no alphabet, there is no way to look at a character and phonetically know how to pronounce it (until you know a lot of other characters, and then you have some clues). The grammar is different. And there are tones.

In Mandarin Chinese, which is the most widely spoken and the one most commonly taught as a foreign language, there are four tones: high, rising, falling and low. The inflection completely changes the word. It's as different as saying "cup" and "cap."

I've never worked so hard, before or since. Through the darkest coldest winter I ever experienced, I spent long hours repeatedly writing out these complicated little characters, and repeating the sounds with the proper tones. I spent night after night visiting the language lab, getting to know the staff there, plus the Russian students. There was a mutual admiration between the Chinese and Russian language students, since we collectively looked down upon the students of French, Spanish and German-- the "short bus" foreign languages.*

I was aided enormously in the task of learning Chinese by the absence of any social life to speak of. Not having anywhere else to go or anything better to do was a real leg-up. I left Middlebury after my first year to go to the University of Pennsylvania.

I studied Chinese at Penn for another year and a half, and then I applied to spend a semester in China. I debated whether to go to Nanjing or Beijing. Nanjing was good - a little smaller, more temperate city. Maybe a better program. But Beijing was where things happened - the seat of government, the center of power. A big city. I opted for Beijing.

I left for Beijing in January of 1989.

*Speakers of said languages, please don't take offense, I kid. I remember how hard Spanish was - from high school. Again, kidding! As I like to point out, how hard can Chinese really be? There's 200 million kids under ten that can speak it just fine.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Would you like to know a secret? I suck.

I suck in about a thousand different ways. I'm 37 years old, and even though I have sucked my entire life, to lesser or greater degrees, I am only just now beginning to be okay with that.

I'm *not* saying I suck at comedy; I don't. I don't know that I'm the next Bill Cosby, but I know I don't suck at it. I'm just saying that in my life so far, I have made a number of mistakes. I've done things I regret, still. I have been lucky to survive a number of self-inflicted fuck-ups.

My adult life has been a process of iteration. Maybe everyone's is, I don't know. I feel like I've been trying on identities-- walking around in them, looking at them in the mirror-- and then deciding, no, this one isn't quite right. So I try on another one. This one's okay, I think, then oops! Probably shouldn't have done that. On to the next one.

I have been extremely fortunate to do some cool things. I learned how to speak Chinese, and I lived in China on three occasions. I was smart enough to get into really good schools, and blessed enough to be able to attend. I look back with mixed emotions. Sometimes I think, "wow, I really accomplished something, didn't I?" Other times I think, "wow, imagine what you might have done if you'd made more of an effort, if you'd really *cared* about what you were doing."

None of my identities has fit yet. Each has had its own mix of pluses and minuses.

Are all my tried-on identities the product of who I am? Or vice-versa? It's iterative. The person I was at 20 affected what I did when I was 25, which affected my choices when I was 30. And so on.

The iterations continue because, well, they just do. I keep trying to do better, keep trying to reach that illusive point where talent, passion and opportunity converge.

Have you ever seen someone engaged in an activity and said, "Look! That person is doing something they love, and by God, they are gifted at it! How cool." To me, those people always look like they glow. I know people like this. I think my dad is this way. My brother-in-law, too. Who knows how, but they happened to find the place where their talent and passion converged with opportunity in an alchemy of human fulfillment.

I've read stories about people having the "eureka" moment of discovering this convergence: of Tiger Woods discovering golf; of Paul Simon writing his first song. I don't know what it's like in reality, but I think of it as a light being turned on.

How many people ever get to know that feeling? I think it must be a small number. There must be far greater numbers of people who were great at basketball, like Jordan-- but they were 5'7". Or people who had the potential to be great scientists-- but never got to go to school.

With each iteration, I'm trying to nudge myself closer to that magic convergence, to improve the odds of my light turning on.

Maybe it never will. I realize that. I accept that. I labored for a long time under the delusion that, at some point, I would find the Right Fit, the Light would Turn On, and then, huzzah, life could begin. And until then, nothing mattered.

But then it finally dawned on me: this is it. This process of trying things on, finding what you like and don't like, and then trying something else-- this *is* it. And mostly, it's fantastic. The light coming on can only be looked at as a happy accident, like winning a prize on a bottle top when you were happy just to have the soda. To view it otherwise - as a right, as an absolute imperative - is to be disappointed constantly.

If my light turns on, I'll be happy. But if it doesn't, I will be happy anyways. That's my plan, at least.

Do you have a better one?