Talking With Xiao Ming – 和晓明的对话

LastNightOut.JordanInChina

The other night was my school’s end of the year dinner. It was at this new Japanese style spa/restaurant/hotel/resort/compound thing. Yeah, I’m not sure how to refer to it, obviously. There was a buffet, our school’s teacher-band played, and people gave speeches to those who are leaving at the end of this year. I gave a speech for a friend that I’ll miss (but will visit in Korea), and tried not to make a fool of myself at the mic. Oh, and we all had to wear sandals the whole time.

The next morning Xiao Ming and I had one of our talks about the night.

Not an I’m-in-the-dog-house talk. A culture-differences-pop-up-everywhere talk. I love the second type of talks, and mostly actively avoid the former.

For four years Xiao Ming and I have been attending events with my colleagues – birthdays, dinners, bar nights, anniversaries, memorials, concerts, and graduations. After nearly every single one she and I sort of debrief the event.

I’m constantly amazed at how objective, attentive, and curious she is about the world around her, so much so that I actually record some of our conversations because I don’t trust myself to remember what she says faithfully. And I do want to remember. Her point-of-view as a highly educated Chinese woman with extended experience abroad and a deep, objective love of her culture and country makes her a fantastic conversationalist on most topics related to China.

“Your co-workers are so free and expressive,” she said to me. Her opinion piqued my interests and I followed up, asking her what she meant.

What follows are parts of our conversation. All of the requisite PC statements are in place here – we’re not sociologists, harbor no agenda that would benefit anyone by championing one culture at the expense of another, know that generalizations are not entirely accurate all the time, and welcome all constructive dialogue that might spring up around any of these topics.

 

Thoughts on Expression

After crying through several of the farewell speeches, Xiao Ming told me that in China something as heartfelt as personal, touching, sentimental goodbyes like that would never happen. You’d get printed out speeches where people read completely from paper with little emotional register in their voice. You’d get words like “you’re great,” “good job,” and “good luck” with no humorous anecdotes, no choking up, no passion.

Inhibitions often control the masses everywhere, but maybe more so here. I myself am not much of a dancer without some liquid courage, but Xiao Ming says that so many more Chinese people are lead-footed because of culture differences. Dancing, singing, playing in bands, these are not Chinese habits. Our staff band, she claims, is something that wouldn’t exist in a Chinese company due to the workers not being “professionals.” My colleagues are good, but they’re definitely not moonlighting for Bon Jovi on the weekends. That doesn’t stop them from putting on great shows at many of our school events and getting teachers out on the dancefloor. Save for the nearly soundproof rooms at KTVs, Spring Festival events, and contest television shows, Chinese workers don’t perform much on a regular basis.

Sentimental statements of gratitude and love are simply not a part of the conversation for families and close friends. Any culture book about China will tell you this, and it is mostly true. Xiao Ming has no memory of her folks telling her that they love her, nor would she feel comfortable telling them that she loves them. They don’t even thank each other or say goodbye on the phone before hanging up! By comparison, every time my mom WeChats us she makes sure to tell Xiao Ming and me that she loves us.

 

Thoughts on Age and Decision-Making

I work with some pretty great people of all ages, and so many of them are full of a zest for life that quite frankly puts me, at only 30, to shame. Some of my co-workers are in their fifties and they dance, laugh, sing, and party like they’re still in college. Women of the same age in China dance a bit, too, but only in the city squares and only when they’re lead by people doing choreographed movements. There’s no way in hell they’d be in bars or dancing at parties.

“Old Yellow Cows,” Xiao Ming calls these types of women. Apparently a term used to describe some of the generation that’s in their 50s and 60s now. “When they don’t have anything to do they just stand there like they’re mooing, they have no entertainment. How many times has my mom said she wants to travel, but then at the last minute she changes her mind? She’ll watch the kids, or do something else. If she does go she comes back complaining about spending money,” Xiao Ming says without pulling her punches.

Younger people, mostly women since Xiao Ming likes to ease drop on them, constantly worry about not being married, losing weight, or shopping. Sit in Starbucks a bit and you can overhear conversations from those around 30 and under and they almost always revolve around obsessively wanting to find a significant other, going on blind dates, and-or their latest romantic fiasco. If they aren’t fretting about who their Mr/Mrs. Right is then they’re posting to WeChat about losing weight while also taking Food Porn shots of their daily meals. Or they’re just flaunting their newest bargain buy with selfies of perplexing angles.

Younger Westerners just don’t seem as bogged down by the same concerns, she theorizes.

I’ve talked to Xiao Ming about how financial burdens can seriously hinder choices in America, and how bills can all but annihilate your day-to-day happiness, but she still feels that Americans tend to have more flexibility than her countrymen and women.

“There’s so many times when I interact with your co-workers and I have these thoughts,” she tells me. “Like the other day when I asked Sherry when she and Ryan were leaving and she said they were all packed up and ready to start their new life next week in Singapore. You know, it’s their life, and I don’t totally want to do that, but I do admire that. They have the choice and chance to change their life. Their life is light, no burden. They can stay somewhere for a few years and then pack up and leave. Even Pat and Cassady. They have two kids and they are free, too. Nothing in their life makes you feel like they have a big stone on their heart. But Chinese people are different. They will always think about how to be stable. Find a house, a job. Settle down and focus on their kid.”

“Even your older co-workers are so free. You can tell they live for themselves. They’re confident. Happy. I can’t even do that. I can’t stop thinking about how other people will judge me. So many Chinese people are this way. Very few Chinese people live for themselves. Even the most selfish actually do things in their life for other peoples’ eyes and judgement. There’s always a thing you have to get done or follow. Like on WeChat you can see that they post about finding a husband, losing weight, or what they eat so others can see.”

“Also like your co-workers in the band. They played instruments and sang. None of them are professional, right? I don’t see Chinese people do this if they’re not professional. They don’t play like that just to relax. Unless it’s KTV, they won’t, and that isn’t real because the machine helps your singing. They can’t be in a group and be themselves.”

 

Thoughts on Education

“I think this is connected to the way the kids are educated. Even with something like music it’s not about enjoyment. Chinese teachers won’t just let students play songs to get interested. They will force them to do the Doe, ray, me, fa, so, la, tee again and again for a month. There’s no creativity or passion. We can be great students, but we can’t apply the equation or function in the real world. Everything is too practical. Teachers think they need to train the kids to answer the questions as fast as possible. You know that even for GaoKao preparation the teachers will show the students how to answer the questions without even reading the whole sentence. It’s all test-taking skills, not about the knowledge itself.”

When I ask her what she thinks of this Xiao Ming says without hesitating, “I think this way of education kills the intelligence and innovation of students.”

“I thought it was only in schools, but since I teach in college now I see that it’s even there, too. Some majors are better than others, but still most are the same. I attend meetings and the heads of these departments just focus on what score will get you what job. Everything is about the score. They list and rank people for everything!”

“They had this so-called good student who gave a speech about how he was ashamed that he couldn’t go to Tsinghua (one of the best in China) like his brother. In the speech he talked about how important it was to get the scores, how hard he had to work, and he sounded very proud of himself. But I thought it was all bullshit. It wasn’t about the knowledge at all. He made it sound like everything is about fighting and the final result, not the process. No one talks about what you learn, what you can contribute to society, how the information makes you useful. They are still hooked on their scores, they’re still in GaoKao mentality. Maybe this explains a lot. About how Chinese people can’t innovate and why they copy so much. It comes from the education. They’re made into cows by the culture and what their parents tell them.”

“I can see this boy’s future. He will graduate and try to find a good job, a good wife, and won’t be able to change anything or be truly productive. The only kids that will be different will be the ones who aren’t great in this school system. Sometimes they’re naughty and they seem very strange to people, but they will become successful and useful people. I feel that even though you have people like this in America, some who just follow and others who stand out, in China most are followers. In America even if they’re not great, at least they have their own thoughts and personality.”

“No one can just express themselves here. It’s like in the speeches. Most of your coworkers spoke without reading from paper the whole time, but even our president can’t do that. He reads directly from his paper. And he never smiles!”

“We never had a charismatic leader, at least beyond that first generation of New China. Today they just don’t have that leader quality about them anymore. They can’t even give a speech well. And when I attended your school’s graduations these last couple years I feel that some of your students are different. It’s clear they have picked up a part of the American culture when they express themselves. A lot of the kids who studied in your school are very good. They have charisma because of the way they were educated. I think that is a great spirit.”

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Thoughts on Parenting

“You can’t imagine how often I think of this when I interact with your co-workers. That’s why I always want to go. I don’t always talk or something, but I always watch and observe. I’m trying to understand them, understand your culture. It’s just so deeply different.”

“And I think all this is the same thing, the same phenomena come from the same root. It’s the philosophy of life, the way we think. Your people are all about being yourself. But the thing that Chinese parents often say to their kids is ‘kan bieren jia haizi,’ which means ‘look at other people’s children.’ They want you to be the same. You’re always told to follow examples.”

“Like the woman who works in the little store in our complex the other day. She was complaining about how worried she was about her son because he is getting 80s in class. She’s so worried about his future, and he’s so young, in fourth grade. And 80s aren’t bad! She said she’s so worried that he will become a useless person. It’s her main concern in life right now. So I told her that it’s okay, to calm down. It will be fine. But this is how obsessed Chinese parents are.”

“For Chinese parents everything is about their kid,” she continues. “If the kid fails in study the parents will feel like failures. They’ll feel hopeless. You can listen to the middle-age men and women talking about their children. They talk about needing to buy them a house, get them a car. They’re obsessed. If it’s a married couple they talk about this, but if it’s a younger person they talk about clothes, shopping, places they’ve been. It’s just, I feel that so many people now have no spirit. I don’t know why. Is it because we were farmers for so long? Is it just a farmer’s mentality?”

There’s no way to answer her last question, or at least I am hopelessly without an answer, so she takes a step back and considers again the role of the parent.

“The kid’s future is his. That’s the way it should be. Er sun zi you er sun fu, ‘your son and grandsons will have their own luck’ is a Chinese phrase that people should remember, but parents try so hard to control things.”

 

Closing Thoughts

It’s at about this point in the conversation that we pause and just sort of look at the people in the coffee shop. Who are we? Two over-caffeinated yuppies with too much education bashing everything around us like we have the answers? Maybe. But it beats playing video games and watching bad television.

 

P.S.

Look what a senior made me!!! She surprised me with it on her last day. Very touching!

 

A Language Litany – 语言祷文

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Excerpt: The Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrasebook & Dictionary sticks out of my back pocket. Pin Yin has been decoded during a few language classes, and some survival vocab arms me with the essentials. Time to put it all to use.

All my aspirations of being a language prodigy disappear the same time I ask a mall worker where the bathroom is and get a confused shake of the head in return. Bathroom, or as they usually say in China cesuo, toilet, is a very useful word to know. And I have to find one, fast.

Finally, when all hope seems gone, I cave and go with a term I’ve recently heard. “W.C.?” I ask in English. He points me in the right direction.

Round two. I’m in a restaurant that has a menu with pictures. Point and say, “Wo yao zhe ge,” and things are looking good. Chinese isn’t so hard. I got this! But I don’t want the hot water that everyone else in China drinks. I want cold water. “Bing shui,” I order.

Blank stare in return. Okay, my tones are wrong. Once more with different inflections. The waitress is looking at me like I’m requesting that the chef sprinkle salt on his leg before he cuts it off and serves it. Again, I give in and resort to gestures. I make fists and hold them up while shaking like I’ve somehow found myself magically outside in the middle of winter without a jacket. “Ah! Bing shui!” she exclaims, nodding as if that’s not what I’ve been saying for two minutes straight.

Originally published by Verge Magazine.

Read the whole thing at:

http://www.vergemagazine.com/work-abroad/blogs/2005-a-language-litany.html#.WOHobc9NzLQ.twitter

 

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For Love of Country – 爱国情怀

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That’s it! Sing-Off to determine the better country!

I’m a visitor here. That cannot be disputed. The fact that I have a Chinese wife, have lived here more than half a decade, and put some time into learning about the culture and language means nothing when certain topics come up.

People can go from hearty to homicidal in about 1.5 seconds when politics comes out to play.

That doesn’t surprise me.

Avoiding political discussions that have a chance of touching sore spots is like crossing a mine field blind-folded with your shirt on fire. Hell, not just here, either. Facebook looks just as much like a dogmatic stream-of-conscious conveyor belt as any of the big names with talking heads out there. A part of me thinks that soon videos of cats will be tapped to perpetuate nefarious hidden agendas of “Deep State” shadow men.

It seems so much of our identity these days gets wrapped up in defining who someone else is instead of deciding who we are. So often that definition begins and ends with a border. I guess that makes some sort of sense. Civilization did spring up from family groups that then morphed into villages, city-states, and then nations. They knew who others were because they didn’t recognize something about them – language, clothes, religion, color.

Instead of riding this thought into the metaphorical, I want to keep it concrete.

You don’t have to be an angry nationalist to be a patriot. There. I said it.

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Seems legit. Credit: Bilerico Project

 

Right now America – as seen from my Facebook feed and news source front pages – is dealing with an identity crisis itself. All kinds of redefining going on over there. Pretty ugly. China isn’t one to be showed up, though. The country has put its 1.3 billion feet down with regards to South Korea and that THAAD missile crap. Beijing isn’t even letting Chinese citizens travel there! Tour agencies are being strong-armed into cancelling their packages to the county, and Korean-owned businesses are being boycotted. Just like at the height of the South China Sea Island dispute with the Japanese, the Chinese people are ready and willing to point their collective wrath any direction the Party says. This is hardly a Chinese issue nor is it an American arrogance problem. Nationalistic bullshit like this crops up everywhere.

But since I’m an American living in China, I’ll focus on what I have experience with.

Concrete: My father-in-law loves China (a bit nationalistic at times). My mother-in-law also loves China (more of a pragmatist, though).

Discussions about Japanese, Russians, Koreans, and even Americans with my father-in-law can escalate into ideological talks that resemble cross-examinations. These same chats with my mother-in-law have a tendency to revolve around the newest product that she finds useful and of a good quality. She sifts through what the world has to offer based on her needs regardless of the origin of what she’s buying. If it’s good quality, cheap, and helps her help her family, she’s game.

I’ve got family and friends Stateside that served in the military. I also know people who take that experience and twist it so they somehow come out as a superior human being, much more American than others who have not worn Dress Blues. Suddenly they are a Citizen and everyone else is a weak, entitled Civilian. Again, not just an American phenomenon.

Xiao Ming has friends and family that fit the same mold. One of her closest friends is a soldier currently, and when they all met last for dinner the topic of patriotism got brought up. Turns out that serving in the military doesn’t just improve your combat skills, give you knew clothes and a job, no, it also just makes you a BETTER HUMAN BEING. Xiao Ming’s friend spent an inordinate amount of time talking at the table about how not only are he and his comrades more patriotic than other Chinese people, they are in fact more worthy of being Chinese citizens, and should be viewed as saviors. To be a soldier is the Best Thing You Can Ever Do, Ever. For Real. I’m paraphrasing his message.

I’m not a soldier, I haven’t served. But that mentality – the one that goes: I am better than you, so be in awe – feels wrong. Doesn’t matter if it’s directed at your own countrymen or those outside your borders. There are men and women who deserve our gratitude and respect, no doubt, but that doesn’t make them better humans or even more worthy of being a citizen of the country.

Once the soldier proves his value to the country, he turns his righteousness toward other places. Mainly, every country not China/America. Regardless of where you’re from, listening to someone rail on and on about another person (or nation of people) can churn your stomach. At some point the urge to raise your hand for permission to speak cuts in and you want to ask if the lecturer is aware that We’re all human. Our commonalities outweigh our differences.

Just the other day on WeChat another childhood friend of Xiao Ming’s who lives in Germany posted a message decrying the boycotting of Korean products by Chinese people. His opinion was that the specific targeting of other countries by Beijing was just a way to control people by giving them a monster at which to aim their anger. Xiao Ming agreed, liking the post. Instantly, another old friend responded by saying they were both wrong and that it is right for the Chinese to be against the Koreans. After all, he said, what would you do if the convenient store in the neighboring complex had better, cheaper products than your own, but then had a guard dog that barks at you every time you go there to shop (but doesn’t stop you). This was the example he gave to drive his point home.

Am I the only one that sees this as a ridiculously insufficient analogy?

Eventually Xiao Ming ended the debate by going above it. Nationalism may be a natural inclination for civilization, she told her friends. Building a strong country probably requires a bit of it, and it’s been around for a long time. But accepting the idea that we’re all people working toward similar goals, though, would better benefit the whole of humanity more instead of just a few of the wealthiest nations. Seeing past the insignia on a passport to the person carrying it is an ideal we can still strive toward.

Idealistic? Certainly. Doesn’t make it wrong.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by headlines and rhetoric in bold print, but there are ways to counter the barrage of one-liner philosophies that paint the world in primary colors.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” Mark Twain once wrote. “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Don’t get me wrong. More and more I believe that mandatory military service might actually be a good thing for all young people, but all that What makes the grass grow? Blood, blood, blood! propaganda needs to be tempered by affordable opportunities for education and travel experiences afterward.

Loving your country is not the same as hating other countries.

Ironically, today Xiao Ming and I ate at a Korean restaurant and spent time in a Korean café. This was not a statement. Other places were just not as convenient. We were happy, however, to see that the media hadn’t absolutely brain-washed everyone. Both places were packed.

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A Glimpse of China – 中国一瞥

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“I’ve just gotten off work.

I’m squeezed in next to a mix of humanity on the Qing Gui, the Light Rail Train, all of us on our way home from a day’s work. From where I’m standing I watch Dalian’s Development Zone flit by. Big Black Mountain, half-finished apartment complexes, small companies with big neon signs, restaurants, a sauna, a McDonald’s, and the relatively new Wanda Plaza that opened last year. It’s all so shiny.

It’s my stop next, so I shimmy around a woman holding a baby. Pressed against one another shoulder-to-shoulder, hip-to-hip, it feels like we’re cattle in a too-small corral. Some of the scents wafting around in the train car drive the simile home. A passenger has recently been to a fish market, and I’m not convinced it’s fresh, either. A sour, meaty odour smacks me in the nose, and I notice the mother unraveling an orange sausage that looks mildly radioactive and smells like it’s been setting in the sun all day. It’s called xiang chang (perfumed sausage) but I can’t imagine anyone ever wanting to dab that onto their body.

A burly looking guy with short black and grey hair sits on the bench to the side with his chin tucked to his chest and aggressive alcohol fumes floating off him. The smell is unmistakable—Baijiu. It’s the national alcohol of choice for the Chinese, a rice (and sometimes corn) wine that can strip an engine or get a shuttle into space.”

First Published by Verge Magazine.

Read the full post at:

http://www.vergemagazine.com/work-abroad/blogs/1984-a-glimpse-of-china.html

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Dragon Raising his Head - 龙抬头

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And I thought I was cranky after a haircut! Source: Wall Street Journal

Today is a good day to cut your hair, if you’re Chinese.

This year February 27 is er yue er, or 2 Month 2. The traditional name is much cooler, though. Dragon Raising its Head Festival, Long Tai Tou.

One of the traditions goes that for the entire month of the lunar January no one cuts their hair. It’s only after the Dragon has raised its head and the rains come that getting your ears lowered is recommended. Dunno why, and no one in my family can explain it sufficiently. Also, if you do cut your hair before the appointed time, your uncle dies. Yeah, I don’t think they can get much more random than that with these holidays.

As I’ve mentioned before, every Chinese holiday seems to also coincide with a family member’s birthday. No one appears to find this suspicious. Today was my San Yi’s. This is Xiao Ming’s middle aunt. Her new son-in-law, Long Hong Jiang, set the meal up, but San Yi paid. In Chinese culture it’s a custom for the birthday guest of honor to treat the family. In the West the birthday girl/boy pays for nothing, but here they foot the bill.

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…At least we didn’t have a table full of dumplings.

Every time we all get together for someone’s birthday, people give toasts. Apparently I’ve been voted the member best suited to represent XiaoMing, her dad, mom, and me. It hadn’t occurred to me until about ten minutes before I spoke that I’d have to give a toast. Due to my age and position in the family, XiaoMing and I, along with the other cousin and her husband, sat closest to the door (this is basically the lowest spot at a Chinese dinner table), and so that put me at exactly halfway through the toasts. Luckily, I’ve been through this before, and I sort of had something I could say.

“San Yi,” I began as I stood with my glass of wine. “Today is your birthday. But today is also LongTaiTou. I’m always learning about Chinese holidays. America doesn’t have so many fun holidays like this! Chinese people and their holidays are great! The most important part of the day, though, is that it’s your birthday. We are all together for it. I wish you a happy birthday!”

Not so much with the sentimentality, but it was understood by all – a big deal for me with my bad tones – and San Yi appreciated it. XiaoMing said it was good, and I tend to defer to her in all things Mandarin. Several others toasted, and we continued to eat. Eventually the individual toasts began. It wasn’t long before I spoke again, to Xiao Yi, this time. She’s the youngest aunt. Turns out that she just retired, for the second time, so that she can help the cousins raise their babies (two of them are pregnant). She posted this on WeChat, but apparently I was the only one who noticed. I mentioned it to XiaoMing earlier and she had no idea, so when Xiao Yi talked to the family, I actually knew what she was talking about.

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I have no idea how many “Gan Bei’s” happened….

As she stood next to me, I raised my glass and toasted her, saying “So many people post on WeChat, Xiao Yi, but I usually don’t even look at their posts. But when you posted, I wanted to know what was going on. You are family, and this is what family does: we care about each other and want to know what’s going on. That’s family.”

This moved her. She then proceeded, tears brimming her eyes, to toast me.

She said such nice things about me as a person, family member, man, and husband that I can’t repeat them here. Her sincerity and love radiated off her.

It’s daunting when others see such value and worth in you. Makes you want to be worthy of their praise.

And here you thought it was just a Monday in February.

Thinking of Language -语言之想

Version 2
Just having the books makes you smarter!

After reading an article that claimed John Cena (WWE Wrestler) was a proficient Mandarin speaker, I had to find proof. And so I did. I saw that interview with Mark Zuckerburg where he did his Q&A in Mandarin. I’ve even heard one-time Presidential Candidate Jon Huntsman speaking Mandarin. Apparently at some point in the recent past people up and started studying China’s official language like it was the crazy aunt’s dish she brought to a cookout that everyone swore they’d never try, but then did and loved it despite the strange smells and occasional indigestion. Too much? Anyway…

Whenever I hear someone who isn’t Chinese speaking Mandarin I immediately want to know their story. Why’d they study it? How and where did they learn? What tricks could they recommend for learning new vocabulary? Just picking it up is a pretty unrealistic sentiment when it comes to Mandarin, at least if you want to move beyond Survival Chinese, so to study means to put in serious man hours (are we saying people hours? Person hours?). When I hear non-Chinese people speaking Mandarin I also think of my first days learning it.

Probably Not the Best Way to Study…

Jayland Learning – the school that brought me to China – offered two one-hour classes a week. Every month one of the Chinese staff members taught the class, and this rotating teacher system created interesting incidents during lunch and dinner time. Mian Zi, or reputation, is highly regarded in Chinese culture, and even though there are about a million cultural gems that people pick and choose to follow in modern China, the influence and consideration of Mian Zi is one of the constants. There are all sorts of little intricacies to wielding and applying Mian Zi and I’m sure I still don’t know it all, but I do know a few things.

Make Your Teacher Look Good is one of the first tenets. So after about a week or two of classes the rest of the staff got it into their heads that starting a tradition of quizzing the lao wai would be in everyone’s best interest. From around the long wooden table questions in Mandarin flew toward me – Ni chi fan le ma? Ni dui zhongguo shenghuo xiguan ma? Zhe shi shenme (asked by pointing at random stuff)? Women de xuexiao you ji ge zhongjiaoshi? Waimian de tianqi zenmeyang? I could answer some, but not all. Getting one right brought a smile to my teacher’s face; wrong meant they sat a bit lower in their chair and got razzed a bit for their student’s mediocre performance.

Trying to simultaneously endear myself to my teacher and progress with my language study, I began translating super short stories and parables into Mandarin in order to recite them around the table. It was a big hit. Not only did the move literally get applause from time to time, my teachers quickly began to swell with pride. Even the school’s Ayi, a woman we all called Da Jie – big sister – took an interest in my story-telling. One short parable in particular made an impression. It was about a Dog who almost convinces a Wolf to give up his wild life to live with him and his master. The Wolf nearly goes for it until he realizes that to get the free food and shelter he’d have to give up his freedom and wear a leash. More than a month after I told it the first time, I heard Da Jie quoting the last line: “I’d rather die skinny and free than live fat and a slave.”

Notebooks full of words and grammar structures I’ve more or less forgotten and relearned over the years are stacked on my bookshelves. About a dozen titles like HSK Vocabulary Workbook, Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words, and Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide accompany the notebooks and suggest to anyone who ganders at them that I am completely fluent. I am not.

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Because Language!

But I would consider myself a bilingual. Most would consider the term Bilingual to mean complete fluency in an additional language, but apparently there is a continuum. The field of study focused on Second or Additional Language Acquisition and Bilingualism has all sorts of words like additive and subtractive, coordinate, passive, balanced, and about a half dozen others to categorize those who use more than one language throughout their life. A big part of me – maybe the part that will push me to pursue a PhD in that area? – is fascinated by the different ways to analyze the role language plays in the lives of people, but another part of me just wants to be able to get a point across to my in-laws without them turning to my wife and asking “Ta shuo sha?” What did he say?

Living abroad, it’s no surprise that most of the people I talk with and work with speak more than one language. Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese, Tagalog, Dutch, Romanian, Korean, Mandarin, French – words from all of these languages crisscross and intertwine with English daily, and I love it. Maybe one day I’ll get to that stage some call Balanced Bilingualism, but until then I’ll just keep plugging away.

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What language(s) do you speak? How and why’d you study?

The Little New Year -小年快乐

He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.

Nope. Not talking about St. Nick. I’m talking about the other Big Brother of the Holiday Season – The Kitchen God, Zao WangYe.

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You’re telling me he sneaks back into the kitchen to steal his wife’s Kit Kats?!

This guy hangs around your home all year, keeping tabs on the family, and then reports back to his boss (the Jade Emperor) just how dysfunctional things have gotten for you and your kin. All this happens about a week before the Chinese New Year so the Jade Emperor can determine just how much fortune you deserve in the coming new year. Sounds like a snitch to me.

The Chinese feel the same, so what some will do is smear honey on his picture (usually hanging in the kitchen) in order to sweeten the message he delivers. Traditional sticky candy – Zao Tang – is also given to children so that their lips get sealed and they can’t spill the beans. Then the picture or effigy of the Kitchen God is burned so that he can carry his gossip back up to Heaven.

Because of the proximity to the Chinese New Year celebrations, this day is dubbed the Little New Year, and marks the beginning of the festivities for many Chinese. Presentations and performances are shown on TV, WeChat messages serving as heralds for the holiday season assault your phone, and, of course, families gather to eat jiaozi – dumplings.

Always dumplings.

The Little New Year was Friday, and it happened to also be XiaoYi Fu’s birthday (Xiao Ming’s youngest aunt’s husband’s familial title). On closer inspection, most of the older generation in the Liu family tend to have birthdays that conveniently fall on Lunar Calendar holidays. Xiao Ming suspects the dates are made up since the grandparents died young in some cases or couldn’t remember the specific date beyond the season and year. We went over to her parents’ place and had dinner with everyone. Pretty standard.

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He actually wanted to wear the crown.

Then someone busted out their WeChat and started opening digital Hong Bao (Red Envelopes). Red Envelopes during the holidays in China means money. WeChat has a new(?) feature where the sender can decide on a sum of money to give away and the number of times it should be divided, but that sum will be randomly divided up into unknown amounts. Say you send 10 RMB to your family group in six envelopes. Everyone opens the envelopes. Some will get ten cents while others may get six RMB. For about thirty minutes everyone laughed and competed with one another to see who could get the most (and of course made fun of the one who got the least).

I got One RMB.

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Fortune Smiles Upon Me!

Next weekend is the Chinese New Year, the big one. The Year of the Rooster is upon us. It’s Xiao Ming’s year, and, as tradition dictates, she has to wear red undergarments – socks, underwear and bra, long-johns – for the entire first lunar month. I, on the other hand, can get away with just wearing red socks.

P.S. Random Archery Pics:

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Few weeks ago we found a cool traditional archery place.