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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
What language(s) do you speak? How and why’d you study?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Chinese people know about it, know Santa brings gifts, trees get lit up, and shops fill with a flurry of purchasing mania. It’s that last economic fringe benefit of the holiday that mostly affects the Chinese, though.
But here in China a holiday does get celebrated right about this time – Dongzhi: the Winter Solstice. So, like a bunch of pagans, the entire country observes the shortest, darkest day of the year. Don’t be offended by the pagan joke. I love pagans.
As is the case with most Chinese holidays, the family gets together during Dongzhi and eats a meal together. In the South it’s the sweat, colorful rice balls called Tangyuan. In the North – where Dalian is – Dumplings are eaten.
And of course they’re homemade. When Xiao Ming and I arrived at our Xiao Yi’s house, her mom and dad were making them. That quickly changed when they pulled us over and put us to work.
I’d made dumplings once, years ago, but couldn’t seem to convince them of that with my completely inept dumpling stuffing and folding technique. My mother-in-law had to patiently show me at least four times before my dumplings looked edible instead of lumps of amorphous flour.
I kept this up for a while, catching my stride and trading small talk with her as Xiao Ming rolled out the round pieces we stuffed with meat and vegies. Then, just when I was beginning to think I didn’t totally suck at such a simple task, my father-in-law comes over and shows me how to pinch the tops of the flour together one side at a time to create an even cooler look. Once again, my first attempts looked like I’d done them blind, in the dark.
They tasted just fine, though.
The family – a small showing of only 10 for the evening – gathered around the table in the kitchen and ate. We toasted each other with red wine (Not sure where the Bai Jiu was that night), beer, and hot water.
What do Chinese families talk about at meals like this?
My father-in-law told jokes about some hillbilly businessmen who used to colorful sentence enhancers in every sentence during a meeting where he struggled to keep a straight face. That kicked off everyone telling jokes that involved swearing with wonderful DongBei (Northeast) flavor. They can really lay the profanities on thick in the North. I thought I got creative with merging English and Mandarin!
Then there was a large portion of time given for comparative linguistics. Well, kinda. They sat around joking in different Mandarin dialects, trying to sound like authentic Hebei or Tianjin locals. Xiao Ming told them about the time I had a full on five-minute conversation with a four-year-old Sichuan boy on the plane that all the passengers around us listened to and ended with a drawn out, rising and falling “man zou!” that made everyone laugh when the boy said it to me in his adorable accent. (Man Zou is said like Mahn Zoe). Then we drank, toasting gan bei in different dialects.
The final topic we all got going on about was familial titles and how to refer to different people. Unlike American families that just use “Grandma/Grandpa,” “Uncle/Aunt,” “Cousin,” and all the other simple titles we know, Mandarin Chinese calls for every person to have their own unique title. Your father and mother’s side don’t use the same, either, so no doubling up. Males and females have different terms as well as older or younger generations. I’m still hopelessly lost once we get beyond first cousins, but they still like to quiz me and each other. Even Xiao Ming makes mistakes! It’s not easy!
After dinner we all hung out in the living room and talked. We showed the family our pictures (some are in the previous post), and they all sat and stared at them for about fifteen, twenty minutes.
And like that, we passed the darkest day of the year together.