Learn a New Language from a White Boy

20160707_162819[1]By the time the WordPress robot posts this update, I will be on my second trip to China, sputtering through a four-week language immersion course in Harbin. Before leaving, I got a preview of it on my son’s field trip to our local urban Chinatown. We were part of a big group of elementary school students in a dim sum restaurant where the busy staff didn’t seem to be taking seriously the religious dietary restrictions of two students I was responsible for, so in desperation, I spoke to the servers in Mandarin. When our exchange was over and the servers were gone, there was a beat of silence, big-eyed kids, and the other mom at the table saying, “I was not expecting that.”

No. At the first few syllables, non-Chinese speakers hearing me hacking away at my not-quite second language usually look horrified, like I’m an idiotic monster trying to do some excruciating Mickey Rooney fake-Chinese comedy. They relax when they see my noise accepted by Chinese-speakers, and then I go from an idiotic monster to a unicorn.

In China, no one is surprised to hear unicorns blundering through the language that is not only local, but the most spoken language in the world. Most people nod at me, maybe smirk, maybe feel bad about discussing special pricing for foreigners right in front of me, correct my speech with cool matter-of-fact-ness, and when it’s over, they might say something about how I shouldn’t get too discouraged.

The reaction of Chinese-speakers outside an explicitly Chinese social context is different again. I was having ‘coffee’ with my professor and her baby in a suburban café, far from Chinatown, when she waved me to the counter and told me it’d be okay if I used Chinese to order a drink. The staff would understand. Ever the obedient student, that’s what I did. The café lady laughed at me. It’s a typical reaction. I didn’t think much of it, smiled, waited for it to pass. What was different about this encounter from the rest of the times I’ve spoken Chinese “in the wild” was that I was standing next to my professor–the person who, more than anyone else, is responsible for teaching me Chinese, who knows something of how difficult it’s been, how profoundly nervous I once was to do anything but read a script. She interrupted the laughter, telling me the lady was just surprised. What I’d said was fine. Later, I asked another professor why Chinese speakers in Canada laugh at me. He described it as “laughter of encouragement.”

These are the explanations of my teachers, friends, and mentors—people who nurture and protect my determination to study and learn Chinese. But it’s not all about me and they may be protecting more than that. I’m old enough to have seen Wayne’s World in its theatrical release and I remember the extended punchline of a joke that is nothing more than an ethnically Scottish North American (like me) having a conversation in Chinese. Hilarious, right? Mike Myer’s on-screen Chinese is strange and overwrought but the fact is, when Chinese is “toned down,” it’s unintelligible. I already walk a line too close to unintelligibility to risk crossing over it because of something like shyness. I can’t afford to hold back. I’m not making fun. I’m just trying to make sense.

There is one more kind of reaction I get when I use Chinese. It comes from a certain kind of person, always—always—an English-speaking man I do not know well. It has happened online and in person. I’ll mention I’m studying Chinese, that I’ve traveled there, might even say something about being a graduate student in a modern languages department. Then the man tells me he is interested in languages too, maybe even in Chinese. Am I using Duolingo? All of this is fine until, instead of asking me anything about learning languages, he shuts down my attempts to enter into a discussion and simply tells me about learning languages. I mentioned the laughing Chinese-speaker phenomenon to a man like this and he told me my lack of understanding of the tonality of Chinese pronunciation must leave me accidentally saying silly, laughable things. Actually, when he took a trip to China, he was praised for his near-native pronunciation of the half dozen pleasantries and place names he had learned to say. Guys like these tend to be the same ones who post memes about Ockham’s Razor, and the simplest answer to my observation about laughter was surely not a complicated, inequitable connection between the English-speaking majority in our community and the ambivalent relationships it fosters between local ethnic diasporas and their ancestral languages. No, the simplest explanation was that I must be foolish.

I was ticked off but still a unicorn. I smiled at white Chinese-language-mansplainer, and you can probably guess what I said.

你说中文吗?

It’s the Chinese equivalent of “Parlez-vous français?” or “Hablas español?” – the kind of phrase the barest of beginners ought to know.

He blinked. “Sorry, what?”

Mm-hm, that’s what I thought.

“Sistering” is One: Happy First Birthday to My Second Book

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Me and My Real Sisters in 1992 – just because I can’t get enough of this picture

When a book is part of the Fall publishing season (as both of my novels have been) the anniversary of its publication, its birthday, comes in the summertime, in the season for not noticing typical business. Yes, once again, I forgot my book’s first birthday—no tweet, no Facebook post, no mental note to self in the shower, not even a mention to my husband over non-coffee.

So happy belated birthday to Sistering, my second novel, now thirteen months old. I didn’t completely forget. I still remember:

  • The reviews, balanced but not at all bad. The first review was one I heard rather than read. It was an interview on a province-wide CBC Radio programme between Chris dela Torre and reviewer Angie Abdou. A stand-out line for me was, “Jennifer Quist makes you believe it.” Tempted to have some T-shirts made…
  • Finding Sistering among fifteen newly published titles on CBC Books’ 2015 Fall Reading List.
  • The Edmonton launch at Audreys Books where I was sick with a terrible cold but made it through the evening on my feet, in good enough voice, and in excellent company. The beautiful artisan cake my sister supplied is probably what saved the day.
  • Travelling to Red Deer and Calgary to read during the early launch days, seeing old friends, meeting talented and interesting people, and having some very unflattering pictures taken of myself voice-acting a chapter from the novel. All’s fair in the promotion of a humor novel.
  • Being recognized by fellow members of my faith community and invited to Laie, Hawaii to receive the Association for Mormon Letters Best Novel Award. For once, my husband was able to go with me to a fly-away writing destination. Going to paradise with my favourite to celebrate a book I wrote that other people read— totally worth taking a hit on that missed Chinese quiz.
  • Coming home to find I’d been long-listed for the 2016 Alberta Readers Choice Awards. We didn’t move past the first round but it was (wait for it) an honor to be nominated.
  • Getting interviewed. I know this is rare in the blogosphere, but I love talking about myself and what I do. Ha! It’s especially true when interviewers know the book and don’t get in the way with preconceived ideas (read: are not hell-bent on a cute-mom story).
  • Coming closer to a Canadian literature icon than ever (not counting having Margaret Atwood sign a book for me this spring) when I was invited to be part of the Leacock Summer Festival in Orillia, Ontario at the museum to Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock.
  • Appearing at book clubs. I love this. If you have a book club, call me. One of the clubs I visited had everyone vote for their favourite sister of the novel’s five main characters. Everyone except “Suzanne” got a vote but “Ashley” ran away with it.
  • The satisfaction of writing a book my mum and her bff could genuinely enjoy.

That was our year. What a business. It pushes us ever onward and I am now finishing up the manuscript of my third novel, one I also love, but won’t promise to remember its birthday when the time comes either.

 

 

 

Wherein My Son Doesn’t Die

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My Middle-born Boy

My middle-born son, age fifteen, did not die on Wild Hay River last week.

He did not die there but he did go there on a canoe trip with his Scouting group. As they went along, the flotilla wound up in an unforeseen, dangerous flooded section of the river. I wasn’t there but I am told a couple of boys evacuating a nearby canoe accidentally capsized the boat my son, my husband, and another boy, only twelve years old, were in. All three of them were dumped into the river. The current was strong, rushing toward a large spruce log covered in spiky broken branches spanning the river from shore to shore. It was large and dense enough to obscure the view of what was on the other side of it. Beyond and beneath it, there would be more water, and maybe all hell.

In the water, the current divided my husband from the kids. He stood in deep, fast water on one bank, anchoring himself by holding onto slippery tree branches with his cut and bleeding hands, shouting out to the boys not go under the fallen tree but to try to grab onto it if they couldn’t get out of the water. Fighting to stay on his feet, he remained in the water, waiting to see if the boys would be able to stop themselves. If they couldn’t, he would let go and let the river push him after them—a bad but only hope. And that would be that.

The younger boy was closer to the opposite bank and strong and smart enough to grapple out of the water on his own. Our son was further in. He was leaning back against the current, digging into the rocks of the riverbed with his bare feet, his boots long gone. My son’s friends stood on the bank in shock. They watched him being pushed closer to the fallen log—a horrible, unknown. To them, the spiked log might have looked like a barrier in a video game—the kind that ends the level and uses up a life.

I have a vivid imagination. It’s an important part of my trade but it’s also awful. In that imagination, I can see a curly, blond, drenched head pushed along the surface of a rough, glacial river. I can see a little white face with eyes just like my grandfather’s in it, staring up out of the water at jagged spikes.

As the log came within his reach, my son rose up out of the water, moving higher and faster than anyone watching thought was possible. He took hold of the tree’s broken branches and stopped himself from being pushed underneath it. “I’m okay,” he told himself, and hand-over-hand, without the help of anyone he could see, he pulled himself out of the river. Safe, he turned to see his father give him a thumbs up and climb out of the river on the opposite shore.

Earlier this year, I had been invited to the Scouting committee meetings where the trip was planned and I didn’t attend a single one. I wasn’t there asking if the river had been scouted yet this season. I wasn’t there to insist on it or to offer to strap on a can of bear spray and scout it myself. I didn’t do any of those things but I get to keep my son anyway. Do not underestimate my gratitude for the grace extended to parents who mess up.

Sure, many good things will come to my son from this experience. He learned it’s possible for him to rescue himself. The boy who was so unsure of his abilities he didn’t perfect riding a bike until he was eleven has now had the experience of reaching out and saving himself. He also lived through one of those tricky human paradoxes where difficulties placed in our paths (like the fallen tree) are often themselves the ways out of the difficulty. He got more perspective on what he is worth to his father, both when his dad stayed in the water until he was out, and when he saw his father safe on the bank advocating for a difficult portage, for not getting right back into the river even if it meant abandoning the canoes in the woods and reimbursing the Scout group for the loss of them out his government salary. Stuff is nothing, work is nothing, money is nothing. You, boy, are everything.

These are all good lessons—powerful lessons, the kinds of mishap-lessons that find all of us no matter how we live our lives. The world is dangerous and unpredictable for everyone. However, I don’t believe these lessons are the ones Scouting has in mind when it promises kids adventure. It’s a stodgy old Commonwealth institution, actually, one with waivers to sign and plenty of liability insurance. It offers character building in terms of well-organized food drives, and gaining confidence and competence by going into the wild to learn to traverse, navigate, build shelter, find and cook food, and stay safe. It’s about exploration, not exploits—understanding the immense power of the natural world, standing close enough to sense its awesome power, and then taking a respectful, sober step back into the preparations and planning that are our best chance for coming home. We will go back and we’ll do better next time.

Downstream on the Wild Hay River, the canoe my family had been in—the one that had capsized and washed away, upside down, under the fallen tree—was recovered. It was sitting upright and aground on a gravelly bar. In it was the bag containing my husband’s driver’s license, and one of our son’s hiking boots. Gone was my husband’s sloppy Scouter hat I had openly hated. So sloppy–here’s to its passing.

外国人去过北京 or, Mute Dragon and Stuttering Phoenix Have No Idea How to Relax

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I have trouble writing the monuments of my life. This summer has been rife with them. In June I attended the birth of my sister’s second-born, my own second-born’s high school graduation, and the veterinary clinic where we signed off on ending the suffering of the nasty little birdie who’d been our pet for over six years. All of it happened without much written comment from me. That will come later, in small ways, image by image as I properly take it in and bleed it out. July began with another monument, which I will post pictures of here at the very least, though I sense it will take years and years to write the whole of it.

My husband and I have just returned from China. Midway through our tour of Beijing, I posted the picture above, captioning it, “The Great Wall 长城, like everything about this place, is both far more amazing and more difficult up close.” A friend asked what I meant by difficult. Well, biased by childhood field trips to stone parapets of British forts made into National Parks in Maritime Canada, I expected the Great Wall to be something like a raised walking trail—all the dangerous parts closed off or refitted to modern standards. But the Beijing section of the wall runs along the top of a mountain range, like a spine on a rippling dragon’s back. The wall is made of stones and brick, dropping off in steep slopes, rising in uneven flights of stairs. In places,metal handrails have been added, long rusted red. Visiting the wall is not a walk but a hike, a climb. Despite the difficulty, it is crowded with people, all kinds of people: foreign athletes showing off their soccer moves, Chinese kids striking Kung Fu poses for their parents’ cameras, tough Chinese grannies unpacking bag lunches, and us, a blond waiguoren couple.

This has been my experience with everything Chinese. It is all more complicated and more difficult than anyone can tell looking at it from afar. The complexity is part of what makes

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The Temple of Heaven, where I might have cried a little

it beautiful almost to the point of surreality. My contact with it humbles and chastises me—at times, punishes me–but I keep following after it anyway. Every time I think about setting it aside, something pulls me back. I can’t turn around in China without crashing face-to-face into myself, even while there is nothing there at all like myself. It may be a place to lose myself in order to find myself.

In Beijing we visited the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, towers and temples and shops. We cleared security and stood in Tiananmen Square, but didn’t queue for the two hours in the hot sun it would have taken to get into Mao’s tomb to see his body lying in a crystal coffin. We did go into The Underground Palace, an empty tomb of a Ming emperor and his two empresses. Their bodies had been removed and destroyed by the Red Guard decades ago. On our way inside, a beautiful princess-girl, just a little younger than the Red Guard would have been when they came here, approached me with delicate English. “Excuse me, would you like to take a picture with me?” She answered when I called her 妹妹 meimei, little sister.

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At Mao’s Tomb in Tiananmen Square

Maybe it sounds forced or phony but believe me when I say the best part of our tour of China was the people, the ones I spoke to and the ones I didn’t. I liked the way, instead of being equipped with a whistle, the boat at the Summer Palace had a loud speaker the captain used to call out scoldings to the smaller boats drifting into his path as we chugged across the lake. I liked the way our cab driver changed his manner of speech when he pronounced the name Mao Zedong—something between esteem and perhaps sarcasm, impossible to tell, so perfect, so Chinese. At night, along the old city moat not far from our hotel, people gathered to sing and dance until the police sent them home at 10pm. Some of them danced in unison, through steps they came together to learn and practice even when the nights were hot and smoggy. We sat on the edges of the patios, with the dancers’ pet dogs and the men with their t-shirts rolled up over their bellies, all of them smoking like it’s 1977, and we watched.

Speaking and understanding Chinese in a classroom is something I can do with hours of careful preparation. Speaking and understanding Chinese in the streets is different. In our

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Beijing Nightlife on the Moat

native language, my husband and I are professional communicators—people paid and petted for our skills in verbal and written expression. In China, my husband is illiterate and has a vocabulary limited to “thank you, hello, right, Canadian.” He was mistaken for Russian, which he also does not speak. But he loves me and came on a trip where he became the big, quiet bodyguard the cab driver was glancing at in the rear-view mirror, asking me what’s wrong with him. He could have booked a vacation on nearly any beach in this world, but instead he came to Beijing—to the heat and smog and smell—so I could grow a little.

As for me, I could barely read and every verbal interaction I had was a smoking wreck. There was a lot of me saying “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” a lot of helpful Chinese restating of what I’d just tried to say only with the better vocabulary and pronunciation. Every time I was corrected, I said thank you because I was thankful. I didn’t go to China to leave just as stupid as I arrived. There were also kind compliments, encouragement, surprised nods whenever I managed to order rice without sounding like a beggar. Back at the hotel, I’d lay awake going over everything I’d said, recognizing mistakes too late, wishing I’d done better. And then it’d all flip inside out and I’d be shaking my exhausted husband, raving, “I used the Chinese! I did it. Did you hear me?”

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Husby and  獬豸xiezhi, good-lookin’ pair, hardly anyone can say they’re as tall as a Chinese unicorn.

Late in the afternoon, after the Great Wall, our tour guide took us to The Sacred Way, a lavish imperial graveyard we had to swipe our thumbprints to get into. It was a long flagstone avenue lined with trees full of magpies, and old statues of standing and crouching animals. Our guide brought us to the Chinese unicorn, the symbol of law and judiciary, a respectful acknowledgement of my husband’s true identity as an erudite member of the justice system in our home country. We stopped to take this picture, long enough for China to make one more tug at me. A swallow-tail butterfly flitted out of a hedge and alighted on the top of my foot. On the stones of The Sacred Way, I stood still and waited as the creature fanned its wings.