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?
It used to be that at least twice a month I fought off assaults from the undead as soon as I closed my eyes. Trapped in my apartment building, locked in a crowded bus, sprinting through the streets as a horde stumbled, limped and lumbered after me.
Any psychoanalyst worth his salt can tell you why I had the dreams; I live in China.
From a numbers approach, China can easily overwhelm. People Mountain, People Sea, the first Chinese idiom I learned—”ren shan ren hai”—basically means there are people as far as the eye can see everywhere you go. After five and a half years, though, I’ve mostly figured out how to make things work between me and the 1.3 billion people who became my neighbours.”
This is an excerpt from a recent blog post I wrote for Verge Magazine, a site dedicated to what they call “travel for change.” The magazine helps people study, travel, and work abroad, and their message of “Travel with purpose” is extremely appealing for those who like to get out in the wide open world for more than just photo ops.
The other day while going through some of my files on my computer I simultaneously discovered iMovie and several videos I took from the trip. I’m just about completely inept with technology, but thanks to YouTube tutorials, I put together a short video.
The trip still remains a powerful memory for me, and I hope to have more experiences like it in the future.
China is a country full of tradition. China is also full of people that have no time for tradition.
But most of those folks fall in line during the Chinese Spring Festival. They save up, fight for their tickets home, stuff Red Envelopes with their hard-earned cash (many of them giving up meals to do so), and spend the first week of the Lunar January with their family eating dish after dish of homemade grub. Most families pull out all the stops. Preparing the New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day meals are endeavors they labor over, choreograph, and take pride in. For days before the event, Xiao Ming’s family blew up the family WeChat Group with instructions for preparing and making the food. You’d have thought they expected Xi Jinping himself to show up.
The celebratory atmosphere lasts until Lantern Festival which is the fifteenth day of the first Lunar Month, this year that’s February 11. It’s really just the first week of the New Year that gets most of the attention, though. Once the family is all together they eat, play mahjong, watch the Spring Fesitval Gala, and some, you know, like fireworks a little bit. Starting at eleven pm you hear the crack and pop and explosive bursts all throughout the city. This goes on for about a week with minor slowdowns throughout the daytime.
For most foreigners celebrating Spring Festival in China they learn about the importance of red, fireworks, and Red Envelopes first. Those are the shiny parts of the holiday and integral to the celebrations, but another tradition is all the visiting of relatives that’s expected. The Chinese call it chuan menr – 串门儿. Just like many Americans on New Year’s Day, the Chinese pay visits to family members at this time of year.
Luckily for Xiao Ming and me, most of the family lives here in Kai Fa Qu. We headed over to the oldest male cousin’s house. He lives in the same complex as Xiao Ming’s parents and aunts. There’s like eight family members in that one complex. We used to live there, too, but it was before everyone decided it was the best place in the world to live. Now we have at least a ten-minute walk separating us!
As usual when there is a family dinner, only about half the food was ready by the designated time of 4 pm. Everyone fretted over something. Chairs for the guests, enough cups, chop sticks, who wore too little, who was too thin, who was too fat. The spread looked great. Tasted better.
After the food we all just chilled. The aunts played mahjong in the back, couple of the uncles smoked and talked about nonsense, and Xiao Ming and I watched some of the Spring Festival Gala. Every year this program takes over Chinese TV and heralds the New Year with performances from all over the country. Dances, songs, Kung Fu performances, Chinese skits of Crosstalk (Xiang Sheng), and of course over-the-top patriotic interviews with men and women in service jobs and military posts.
Then Jackie Chan leads everyone in a song of “My Home is in My Heart” while simultaneously performing Chinese Sign Language. Yeah, seriously. Here’s a better link to it.
Like Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve, there’s the same host for decades, a countdown, and even a Midnight Meal. Back home we ate Sour Kraut and Pork. Here they eat…
Surprised by this, anyone?
I noticed the fireworks the most my first year in China. The noise, smoke, colors. It was the Year of the Dragon. Aside from what I read online or was told at my work, I didn’t take part in much celebrating that first year, at least not Chinese celebrations. With each year that passes that changes. Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, and now the Rooster. Being a part of a Chinese family has changed the way I view and experience China. How could it not?
Along the coast in Kai Fa Qu there are a series of ramshackle properties that look like they’ve just come through a rough storm. Maybe at some point in the past the paint was fresh and the awnings didn’t flap in the wind…
The Liu clan pulled up in front of the one open and well-maintained restaurant there while Xiao Ming and I stood along the shoreline looking out at the dark water. We tried to imagine the potential of such a naturally pretty area. Couldn’t tell if it was a lack of money or ambition that had let that whole stretch of coast go belly up.
We greeted each other and commented on our surroundings, wondering out loud if we’d all come to the right place. This was the meal where the whole family would meet my other cousin-in-law’s new husband (not the same couple from the previous entry).
It’d been a quick relationship so far; one could even use words like shotgun or wedlock to describe it. Everything with this cousin, though, tends to be extreme or unorthodox. Her past is more than a bit spotty, full of secrets only Xiao Ming (and now I) knows. I could do an entire entry on her particular version of Buddhism – the one that can convince you your body is indwelt with spirits that wish you ill intent. She has a shrine with their names written on parchment.
Anyway – it is the right place. We go in and are ushered to room 307. A small room with a big round table. The guests have arrived before the hosts, everyone exclaims when we enter and no one is there. A bit rude, but not too unacceptable.
As we stand around, Ni Ji, starts asking me how tall I am. I forget, I tell him, so he asks me to stand back-to-back with him. He’s slightly taller. People are obsessed with your Shen Gao, height. There are set standards for desirable men and women – 175cm and taller for guys, 165-170cm for ladies. At 5’9, I’m at the threshold of passable, a mere 175.2 cm.
And then they arrive.
The cousin, Zhao Jing, her husband, Hong Jiang, and his mother walk in. Zhao Jing hides her face behind a pink scarf for a few minutes and then removes it to reveal puffy, splotchy cheeks, some sort of allergic reaction they haven’t identified. Hong Jiang, a tall, barrel-chested guy with a large head and skinny arms shakes everyone’s hands and tells me in English that he’s happy to meet me. His mother, a woman who looks almost too young to have a son his age, is tentative but polite as she talks to all present in turn.
With the arrival of Lao Jiu – the loud uncle who runs the local industrial zone – his wife – a local government official with some clout of her own – and his son our dinner party is topped off with 17 adults and two children.
We all stared at the table.
As with everything in this country, there is an etiquette to observe. One’s place at the table is a matter of importance, not just vague guesstimation. Basically, the rules are that the eldest or guest of honor (GoH) sits farthest from the doorway, and the youngest or guest with the lowest status takes the place closest to it. Spreading out from the GoH, on either side of him or her, the status of the individual goes down incrementally until the two sides meet. I’ve been on either sides of the table before, but for that meal, Xiao Ming and I, Ni Ji and Lulu, and Dong Dong (Ge, the male cousin) were on the end nearest the door. The token Lao Wai doesn’t always get preferential treatment.
But the “adults” had a hell of a time figuring it all out. Xiao Ming’s dad sat on the “low” side, the aunts didn’t know how close to the GoH to sit, and the two kids just kept leaping from one chair to the next. Hong Jiang’s mother kept telling everyone to sit, but of course they didn’t – couldn’t for fear of a committing a faux paux. Then we realized there weren’t enough chairs anyway and three more had to be brought in. What do I do in this situation? Nothing. I wait until Xiao Ming tells me where to sit. It’s the safest play.
We do, finally, sit. I’m to the right of Xiao Ming and to the left of my Xiao Yi, the youngest aunt – Lulu’s mother. The first courses are brought out, all unfortunately selections of seafood that scare me. I picked at some of the vegetables and listen to as much of the conversations as possible until some of the main dishes arrive. These are your meats and big vegies. Shrimp, huge fish, and pork. I dig in.
And then the toasts began.
Hong Jiang welcomed everyone, gave compliments to the oldest present, and then commented on being a part of the family. Bai jiu! In hindsight, Xiao Ming told me, it was quite a vague speech. Then directly to his left Lao Jiu stood and spoke. Holiday, family, happiness – and a lot of vocal inflections pretty much sums his up. Bai jiu! When Lao Jiu sat down we all continued eating. Then, after a few more minutes Zhao Jing’s father, my San Yi Fu, stood. I began to get nervous. A pattern had emerged. He toasted to the family, the holiday, and his new son and happy daughter. Gan bei!
At this point, I leaned over and asked Xiao Ming if everyone – of particular interest: me – would have to make a toast. No, she said. I almost believed her. Six people sat between San Yi Fu and me. The next one to give a toast, San Yi, lifted her glass of Bai Jiu and issued a short speech that at times dropped to almost a whisper. He eyes, as usual, looked heavy and she seemed half ready to sleep, but then she smiled and bid us all gan bei. At this point those drinking the rice liquor had to top off their second or third glass of the stuff. If you haven’t had, just know it’s potent enough to get a rocket into space. My Xiao Yi leaned over then and asked me if her face was red. It wasn’t, yet. She was sweating, she said. I wondered if she was nervous.
San Yi Fu’s mother, the oldest present, didn’t toast. Hong Jiang’s mother, though, did. She played it safe with the warm wishes and the happiness. Eating, eating, eati—another toast! My mother-in-law stood and lifted her glass. She wore a bright blue blazer with a silver pin that Ge’s wife, my Sao Zi, had to reposition from the right side to the more appropriate left side before we walked into the restaurant. Xiao Ming and I can’t recall what she said at all. Characteristically, my father-in-law didn’t speak. Standoffish to the point of rudeness sometimes, he is a frugal, timid, quiet man who is known for showing up for food and then disappearing before the real drinking starts or the bull-shitting (ba xia – to peel shrimp) gets underway. No one even remarked on his silence.
We ate some more. At this point I began running over possible lines in my head. So far only the oldest and the most eccentric got a pass. I’d given up on the hope that I could secure a bye myself. And then Xiao Yi stood, her face now a rosy tint, and held up her glass. Totally consumed by the prospect of yet another toast, I didn’t catch much of this one, either. Except the end – gan bei!
A few more bites taken. My heart beat kicked it up just a bit.
Hong Jiang and Lao Jiu both said something that sounded too much like a request for my toast. I ignored them, focusing instead on helping Xiao Yi refill her glass. My mother-in-law, bless her heart, said that I’d already given a good speech at Lulu and Ni Ji’s party that summer. Xiao Ming concurred. No give. Then Xiao Yi nudged me on. Betrayal!
I smiled, grabbed my glass, and stood.
“Let me think,” I begged with a tight grin, glancing off to the side as if the words had been stashed there for me to find. Think, think! Despite my instincts being right about the toast, my preparation had yielded only a theme—dining etiquette. Around and around in my mind a phrase revolved, and then finally it was out. “In China finding a place to sit when you eat is hard.”
They nodded, agreeing hesitantly with this observation. So far so good. One or two repeated the line back under their breath, no doubt adding the appropriate tones.
“This is also a part of Chinese culture, right?” Agreement. “Today we came in and had a hard time finding a seat, but I’ve noticed that once we finally do sit and begin eating and talking, the seat isn’t that important anymore. What’s more important is the family that’s together.” A turn toward Zhao Jing and Hong Jiang. Glass raised. “And now I’m very happy because my family keeps getting bigger and bigger. Gan bei!”
Even with the Bai Jiu sprinting up to my head, my hands still shook. My heartrate pushed the alcohol through my system quicker and quicker so that added to the mix was a not-unpleasant dizziness. Xiao Ming loved it, she said. Everyone “Hao, Hao-ed” me – Good, good. Jiu Ma, Lao Jiu’s wife (also a woman worthy of her own entry) stared at me with a suddenly very serious look and complimented my Mandarin. Said something about me going on this game show where foreigners speak Mandarin. I thanked her, but demurred at the notion I could hang with those on that show.
Ni Ji got up next, but he also played it safe with a vague rendition and a bit too much distance between him and those around the table, Xiao Ming later told me. Ge represented his father, he told the family. Happiness, family, holidays! And then Jiu Ma’s turn came round.
Everything she said was good. If it’d come from anyone else, there wouldn’t be any issue. But Jiu Ma is a 38 year-old PhD government official who, fifteen years ago while still a college student, developed an affair with Lao Jiu that ended his first marriage. Lao Jiu even likes to joke that her PhD is a fake! Condescending and ultra-task-oriented, she tends to only smile after she’s gotten something she wants from someone. Her four-year-old, Lele, is constantly in the care of the aunts (mostly Xiao Ming’s mom), and yet she loves to wax poetically about a mother’s responsibility to her child. And so her toast took on the form of a lecture. Familial piety was her message. Taking care of mom and dad above all else, even the marriage! She even observed that two years ago none of the cousins even had boyfriends. Wrong! Xiao Ming and I have been together more than three years, thank you! Who knows if this was deliberate. Well, she got tears in her eyes, leaned over and clinked glasses with Zhao Jing and Hong Jiang (She sat close enough to them to do so), and ended her toast.
Nothing about this woman surprises me anymore, and so I just continued on eating and drinking. Xiao Ming balled her fists and punched my thigh. She and I both dislike Jiu Ma’s practical, manipulative personality, but because neither of us have ever needed any help from Lao Jiu or Jiu Ma or their guan xi, she doesn’t make requests of us. It’s a consolation we content ourselves with.
The round of toasts complete, we ate uninterrupted for a while. My father-in-law leaves around this time, slipping out of the room like a ninja.
The second round of gan bei(s) have little responsibility attached. You simply call out to a family member, raise your glass, and tell them how much to drink. It’s usually the whole damn shot glass of Bai Jiu. You can tell when people begin to get winded because they start saying “just a sip” or “half.” At that point in the drinking festivities, every time I pick up my glass it gets set down empty. When the Bai Jiu is gone, we switch to Snow Beer.
I ate and ate, drank and drank. To quote Forest Gump, “When I had to, you know, I went.” I got in on some of the conversations – Chicago verse New York, teaching, fishing. Hong Jiang made a toast to Xiao Ming (pretty sure he kept staring at her throughout the meal). The two kids ran around the table jabbering away at the tops of their lungs. Smokes were smoked. More glasses of beer!
And then it is time to leave.
It’s just about 1 pm and I spend the rest of the day hungover.