Thirteen Things That Are Better In China

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My China Look

I am back in Canada, back to the ridiculous standard of living I enjoy in what is the best of all nations on this planet. Don’t bother to argue. Canada and I are in a honeymoon phase right now and I won’t be dissuaded.

For the month of July 2017, I lived in northeast China, studying at a university in the little-known city of Harbin, which is twice the size of the biggest city in Canada. By now, my experiences with China and Chinese are bigger than a single blog-post or Instagram feed. They are more like a book–nuanced and complex. When I look at the Instagram feed (find it at jennylquist) I used to curate some what I encountered on my latest trip to China, I’m afraid the overall impression might be a bit too negative, too “other.”

So in the spirit of fairness, positivity, and unity, I bring you a list of things about China that are actually better than what we have here in the West.

  • Hailing Waiters – The relationships Western diners have with their servers—it’s weird. It’s a complicated game where servers try to guess and perfectly time diners’ needs while diners try to stiffly and silently catch their eyes, getting huffier and huffier when things aren’t perfect, everyone wondering what it might all mean for the fraught practice of tipping at the end of the night. In China, when a diner needs something, she waves and calls out. The server expects it and doesn’t get worried or offended by it. The communication is direct, uncomplicated, and effective. It’s better.
  • Over-dressing – Fancy dresses, shoes, and accessories are worn in China because they are fun and beautiful–no other justification needed. Where I was staying, this seemed to be more common for women than it was for men (head to South Korea for guys in suits for no special reason). Fancy dressing is not something Chinese women age out of either. In fact, the frilliest dresses on the street are worn by auntie-aged ladies. No one in China seems to have any idea how old I am and when I tried on one of these dresses in a store—a silk shift dress for $20–the clerk asked if I was going to wear this auntie dress myself. 当然自己穿!I bought a pair of pointy-toed gold shoes to go with it.
  • Bathroom Mysteries – Not since I last toilet-trained someone have I talked as freely about bathroom issues as I did in China. It really is strange that in the West the perfectly normal, sometimes medically important movements of toilet fluids are still taboo. Being able to talk about it openly is a more genuinely human way to behave. “I’ll be downstairs right after I finish pooping,” a 20-year-old man texted me. Sure, fair enough.
  • Love Songs – The last hour of formal Chinese instruction I had at the Harbin Institute of Technology was spent learning love songs to sing at the end of semester concert for our classmates. They were overwrought and awesome—all about crying and being wrong and loving too much. During our long, long day of airport delays on the way home, my traveling companion and I amused ourselves singing what we remembered of them, using them as an emotional safety valve for a harrowing, exhausting day.
  • Proper Use of Air Conditioning – In the West, especially in the hottest parts of America, air conditioning is used to transform interior spaces into refrigerator units. It wastes an obscene amount of energy and can lead to people stuck indoors dressing up in layers of warm clothing to counteract the air conditioning. In China, air conditioning is meant to make interior spaces not cold but merely warm. They’re usually set around 25 degrees Celsius—the temperature of a pleasant summer day–rather than at 19 degrees Celsius—the temperature of a colossal Target store in Phoenix.
  • Russia – When traveling in Asia (and in Europe, where my son lives) it’s remarkable to realize how pervasive the Russian language and Russian people are in the countries bordering their own. In Beijing and in the north, people trying to guess my nationality usually guessed Russian first. An elite Russian high school student can function in Russian, English, and often another language such as, yes, Chinese. So…yeah.
  • Kitchen in the Front, Party in the Back – It’s not uncommon for a Chinese restaurant’s dining room to be in the back of the building, meaning diners get to walk through and see all the ugly truths of the kitchens where their food is prepared. If there’s an overflowing garbage can covered in flies, or a live turtle living in a plastic box right on the food prep space, we’re going to know about it and have no one but ourselves to blame for the astounding bathroom story we’ll wind up with later.
  • Public Transportation – In my home town, riding the lacklustre subway costs just under $4. In north east China, riding the clean, flashy subway cost about 20 cents.
  • The Welcome Applause – In China, applause comes at the beginning of the performance to get the performers psyched up and feeling welcome. There’s no daunting, expectant silence as they take the stage.
  • Drinks in Bags – Instead of selling drinks to-go in tippy cardboard drink trays, Chinese cafes hand them out in slender plastic bags with handles. We can carry more than one without spilling or getting wet from the condensation on the sides of the cup. I hereby call out the cardboard drink tray cartel that is holding this back in the West.
  • Scale – In the West, at five foot one inch tall (about 155cm) my height is that of a child in the sixth grade. In China, I’m fairly normal. I sail right under low hanging staircases and doorways, and I can always find shoes in my size. Back home, many shoe stores don’t even order merchandise in my size.
  • Talking to Strangers – Homes tend to be small in China so cities are planned with shared outdoor living spaces where people come together to sit, talk, eat, play, sing, and dance. This fosters a culture where people accept the nearness of strangers as part of normal private life. They initiate conversations, stare, scold, speak their minds even on personal topics. The look of my transparent Irish skin provoked a lot of advice from strangers on how to take better care of my body. It was invasive and strange but I was touched by it. I felt loved and important when I heard it. I felt like I was being allowed to become part of something.

The reason I went to China was to learn, especially to learn its language. I don’t think one language can be better than another but what I love about Chinese is how different it is from every other language I know anything about. Chinese isn’t just a new language to me, it’s a new mental faculty–one that also exists in the minds of a billion other people. After all these little details, what, in the end, is better in China than in the West? I am. I am more human for having been there and I hope I have brought that home with me to my family, friends, and country-people. Not everyone’s journey will pass through China—or anyplace in particular–to make them who they need to be. But mine does, and I am so grateful.

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.

Eight Scary Things You Might Not Know About Studying Chinese

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This is Jay Chou. He sings and plays piano and cello for me while I study.

I really should be studying for the grammar exam and the oral presentation I need to perform in finely articulated Chinese tomorrow. I have, I will. But first, some completely unproductive catharsis. I give you eight scary things you might not know about studying Chinese:

  • Reading fancy Chinese characters – that’s the easy part. It’s a task of rote memorization which, while grueling, isn’t actually complicated and can be achieved to perfection. Who gets full marks on vocabulary tests? In my class, we all do.
  • The hardest part of learning Chinese is understanding ANYTHING people are saying out loud. Even if we had ears perfectly tuned to “tones” — the prescribed accents Chinese speakers use, changing the pitches of their voices while pronouncing vowels — Chinese might still seem like a handful of short words that all sound pretty much the same. The language has an abundance of homophones. English has them too – words like meet, meat, and mete—but Chinese has many, many more. It’s a language with a “limited sound palette” which is a pretty way of saying that without a sound understanding of context, it’s impossible to tell one word from another without being able to see their written characters (though some of the characters look the same but are pronounced differently and have different meanings because even the easiest things are not easy here).
  • It takes twice as many hours of instruction in Chinese than it does in ANY OTHER LANGUAGE offered at my large, world-class university to be considered an “intermediate” level student. And judging from myself, by “intermediate” level they must mean someone who still bursts into tears when being spoken to at normal conversational speed.
  • There is no “It” as we Anglophones know it in Chinese. Yup, unless we’re talking about a pronoun for animals or other specific objects under certain circumstances only, there is no “It.” We can’t say “It’s raining” in Chinese. We can’t say “It seems like you’re frustrated.” Speaking Chinese is like a Monty Python skit that way. You know Monty Python, the quintessential ENGLISH sketch comedy troupe, who imagined nothing could be more linguistically nonsensical than speaking without ever saying “It.” Haha, welcome to China, ignorant old Pythons.
  • The absence of “It” is just the beginning. Chinese also has no plurals as we know them, no capitalization, no verb declension. In all the materials I’ve ever seen meant to encourage students to choose Chinese, “simple grammar” is touted as a benefit. It’s faulty reasoning. English grammar isn’t simple. We don’t like simple grammar. We don’t trust it. We can’t handle it. We overthink it, tacking on superfluous prepositions and pronouns, getting hung up on details Chinese doesn’t care about while ignoring things it cares deeply about. For instance, if we’re using Chinese to describe someone in the middle of doing a task that can’t last for very long, we use different grammar than if we’re talking about someone in the middle of a task that can last a long time. Simple, right? Maybe, but the Anglos are all back at the beginning arguing about what the concept of “can’t last for very long” might actually mean. And the Chinese grammar that stands somewhere near the place of our dear English past tense – well, it seems scattered and piecemeal to us, chaotic, and as one professor famously says, just plain “evil.” So I don’t want to hear ONE MORE WORD about how Chinese grammar is simple.
  • Studying Chinese brings a sense of contempt for the idea of studying other, less punishing languages. I admit it was not one of my finest hours when I scoffed at a bilingual friend, telling him that, especially here in Canada, “Reading French is like
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    Mynah birds, alien experts in mimicking human speech

    grocery shopping. Reading Chinese is a super power.” Nice one, Jenny. Still, the idea that a foreign language could be spoken with some recognition just by sounding it out in letters we’ve known since we were babies, the idea that two languages might share cognates or at least words with the same roots that can be decoded if one is clever and knowledgeable of one’s mother tongue – all that comes completely apart for English speakers studying Chinese. We approach it like we’re mynah birds.

  • It takes a whole community to learn Chinese. It’s not a task for Google Image searching tattoo enthusiasts or loners in dark basements watching Kung Fu movies with the subtitles turned off. Learning Chinese demands a mortification of the ego in every way. Lay down that pride. We sound like toddlers but we speak out loud in a crowded room anyway. We cry for help, rely on everyone, all our linguistic brothers and sisters at arms. Sure, all language classes include group work and partnerships. But in my many years of school, I’ve never seen anything like the camaraderie of a Chinese class.
  • Chinese students – especially people from my Western and girlie demographic – need to be prepared to explain themselves. After all this ranting and venting we need to have answers for obvious questions about why we’re studying this language when there are more attainable languages much closer to home. What’s our problem? What happened to us? 怎么了?My reasons for choosing Chinese are complicated and idealistic. I still believe in them. But lately, I’ve taken to replying with, “What? Why’d I pick Chinese? Uh, who knows? It seems like a long time ago now…”

Anyways, sorry about the shouting. Thanks for reading. Enjoy your day. Listen to some Jay Chou music. As for me, as one of my fellow English-people says, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends…”

 

Carols, Angels, Babel, and Noona

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M.C. Escher’s “Tower of Babel”

It’s Christmas, a fine time of year to tell a story that begins in church. Recently, I was in a congregation singing “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” In the lyrics of the little-known later verses, the ones I had to peek at the hymnal to remember, the song describes the world we live in. It says, “And ever o’er [the world’s] Babel sounds, the blessed angels sing.”

Of course, “Babel” refers to a story early in the Bible about the social catastrophe of the Tower of Babel. Humanity was glitching out and needed its reset button hit–again. But instead of suffering another flood, our language was scrambled. It was the end of the world. Everyone was dry and safe but the world that existed before language was “confounded” was over.

Whether we read the Bible literally or not, the tower story reveals something about ourselves. The fact that a story like this could endure for so long and be so widely spread betrays the profundity of our sadness—maybe even our terror—at the barriers that divide us from each other. The Tower of Babel pricks at our collective longing for a world where “the whole earth [is] of one language, and of one speech.”

With great difficulty, language barriers can be overcome.  They are overcome, all the time. In many ways, this overcoming proves that our higher nature—the one allied with the Christmas carol’s “blessed angels” who see “all the weary world” at once—can rise above the “Babel sounds” of our lower, confused and tribal nature that would rather we huddle in exclusive groups, throwing rocks, registering and monitoring people whose families don’t sound like ours. But separation does not make us happy. On some level, when we’re calm and honest with ourselves, we all know this. It’s one of the oldest lessons there is.

In everyday terms, told without angels or towers, here’s what I mean.

For the past two semesters, my Chinese class partner and school bff has been a 27-year-old, world-travelling, polyglot, sweetie-pie, veteran of the South Korean navy. One morning, I jokingly referred to myself as his noona (Korean for a boy’s older sister) and the rest is history. Noona, noona, noona~~~

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were having lunch with him. English is the third of the five languages he knows and sometimes, understandably, his talk gets tangled. He stopped himself mid-sentence with a bitter, “Oh, my English!” Actually, it wasn’t so bad. I rephrased the complicated statement I assumed he’d been trying to make and repeated it to him. He didn’t reply with his voice. Instead, he smiled, put one hand over his heart, and extended his other hand across the table, toward me. I recognized it as the universal sign for, “This person knows my heart.” It was beautiful. I will remember what he looked like, sitting there with us, for as long as I have a mind that remembers anything.

Ask anyone: overcoming a language barrier takes more than flashcards and worksheets. Memorization and practice can train us to function but they won’t boost us all the way over the wall to where people really live. True understanding of anyone from outside (or, heck, from inside) our language group requires bringing that hand to the heart, sharing and connecting in sublime ways beyond vocabulary. Any barrier is best overcome by acts of love and brotherhood—noona-hood.

All of this is what I want to say when I’m asked why I am slaying myself to learn a new language. The more people we can talk to, the more people we can love. And when we put ourselves in a setting where our native language is not the dominant one, we learn to pay more attention to what people mean rather than just what they say. When we can only translate part of a communication through language alone, we learn to tune in to other cues—obvious ones we can observe with our senses like gestures, facial expressions, and non-verbal vocalizations, as well as cues we sense with our empathy, our feelings, with our spirits.

Why learn another language? Do it to for the resume, sure. But also, do it for love. How corny is that? Corny enough to be a Christmas song, one that looks forward to the day when “the whole world send back the song, which now the angels sing.”

 

 

我 学 中文 or, How Learning Chinese is Changing My Mind

Our professor renamed each of us in Chinese. This is what he called me.

Our professor renamed each of us in Chinese. This is what he called me. It sounds like “Jenny.”

In three months my second novel, Sistering, will be released. The manuscript has been sent to layout. The cover has been finalized. For now, there’s nothing to do but wait. Authors can go a little mad at this point, second-guessing ourselves, worrying all past successes were just flukes. We could reread our unreleased novels to reassure ourselves they’re good, but if that reading raises any doubts, highlights any passages we wish we could have one more go at, it’s too late. Reassurance could turn to regret. So we leave books caught in Limbo untouched, willing ourselves to trust our editors, our publishers, the promise readers said they saw in us when they reviewed our previous novels.

It’s a funny space to inhabit—too far into the publishing process to look at the book, but too close to publication to look away.

A friend of mine quelled her latest bout of pre-publication nerves with a trip overseas. That’s not possible for me but I couldn’t just sit here and wait. I needed to diminish my obsession with my sophomore book with a new, completely unrelated obsession.

Yes, I get obsessed with things. Most of the time, I like that about myself. Without a propensity for obsession I might not have finished any novels or stayed infatuated with the same man for twenty-one years. Obsessions demand time, attention, and energy. They rob other things, including other incompatible obsessions.

And I’ve found a new one. My current obsession—my respite from fretful excitement over my next novel—is Mandarin Chinese.

What the heck, eh? I’ve been asked that a lot since I enrolled in a Chinese course at the University of Alberta this spring. It began with my interest in getting a Masters of English degree from a school that requires its candidates graduate with intermediate-level knowledge of a language other than English. I don’t believe in fate but I do believe our lives have purpose. At times, we act and at other times we are acted upon. I think I may have been acted upon by the university’s lean spring semester selections and the daily schedules of the schoolboys in my family. Chinese became my only viable course option. If I wanted to sound silly, I’d call it destiny. Whatever it is, I spent my Saturday afternoon sitting in a barber shop while the boys took turns getting their hair cut and showing me flashcards of Chinese characters.

Unlike other east Asian languages, Chinese has no alternate phonetic writing system. Often, casual beginners’ Chinese courses stick to Pinyin (Chinese written in romanized letters familiar to English speakers) and leave characters to native speakers and scholars. That’s not how it is at the U of A. Their course is an intensive, integrated, academic study of Chinese without any room for the mystique that can surround characters. In the words of my professor, “People have to get over it.”

As a storyteller, I’m finding I wouldn’t want to learn the language any other way. Chinese characters are fascinating. They’re also easier to draw and remember than they first appear. My fresh-brained genius days are long past but still, after one week of class, I drove home through Edmonton’s Chinatown reading snips of signage along 97 Street. It’s the road my husband’s office is on, one I’ve traveled countless times. I’d always traveled it illiterate but this time I was cackling with outright glee, alone in my car. “Honorable! That character is honorable! See the cowrie shell radical?”

Traces of the culture and history of the people who developed the language are folded within the characters. The word for “me” has a sword in it. Meaning is lost when characters are ignored. For instance, the words for “he” and “she” are pronounced the same, spelled the same in Pinyin, and can only be distinguished by seeing the characters. It’s an elegant, organic way to express historical social values.

Characters are words made concrete in a way I never experienced writing only in a phonetic language. At breakfast this morning, I read the French written on the side of a jam jar, and thought of how reading in Chinese isn’t much like what I’ve known as reading at all. Reading French or German or even Pinyin is a completely different intellectual and artistic experience than reading characters. Reading characters seems to activate a separate mental faculty—one I’m just discovering in myself. It’s startling, mind blowing in a way that’s almost literal. I am in awe that people—a billion people—can do this. And I’m stunned and a little betrayed that I never knew the world was like this until now.

All of this turns my mind and heart back to my new, unreleased book. And not just that, but everything that lies in the future for me and everyone else. If the world has room for something like Chinese writing—something so huge and pervasive yet hidden by my ignorance—that I didn’t truly notice until halfway through my life, there’s got to be much more in store for us than just the good things we’ve already discovered and enjoyed.

We have a tidy little English word for that sentiment: hope.