Guiyang to Chengdu




Walking, Learning

A trip to the city is often one of the best forms of education. Passing on-street displays of small piles of dead snakes is not as strange as the crowd slowly gathering to listen to the salesman's pitch: This is REAL Chinese medicine, people. People still stare at me because they are not accustomed to seeing foreigners, only now I'm getting better at understanding the dialect. "Hey! Is that foreigner a man or a woman?" a man yells at his friend right in front of me.
"What?!" I ask him.
"I asked my friend if you were a man or a woman." he replies, surprised.
"Why don't you guess?"
"That's right," I reply, storming off.

The city is the place where I can find a full spectrum of life: from people inviting me into their homes because I made conversation to those who look at me and tell everyone they are going to charge more money because I'm a foreigner. There have been moments of such acute anger defused by a friendly bus driver who lends a helping hand because I've taken his bus before.

I saw a man in a cheap blue suit running from a crowd. He tripped and then...well...let's just say the crowd wasn't following him to say that he'd won the lottery. He was a con man and he got caught in the wrong place: the middle of a crowd.

It's nice when students are with me in the city. If I get excited because there is a store full of honey they calmly redirect me, a child in a 26-year-old's body, while explaining that the honey is not real, only a "honey, sugar, and chemistry" [sic] mixture. Who knows what I would have ended up eating had I been alone.

I've been feeling better: not even a slight rumble in my stomach for the past three weeks. It has led to more adventures outside: pushing the limits of my Chinese to explore slender alleyways, finding new people to talk with, and telling my story once again. Are you familiar with the U.S.-China Friendship Volunteer Program? Well, it started when...

And the more I get out and stumble around (bodily and lingua-metaphorically), the more I realize that I'm creating a new story to tell later. The little mishaps and cherished successes that are becoming a part of my growth and change as a person. Sometimes I am frightened of this change. I can't remember simple English words on a regular basis. I struggled for over ten minutes to think of the word "sledgehammer" and even longer with "strainer." I find myself spitting on the street regularly and, once, when I spat on the floor in a restaurant, all of the other volunteers were aghast (but it's perfectly normal).

The word "maybe" has slipped into my vocabulary like a virus. I would do anything to get rid of this word, but it goes at the beginning of everything. Chinese culture is about indirect communication to avoid hurting anyone's feelings. Avoiding this is important because, in the collectivist thought and culture in which everyone lives, relationships are valued above nearly everything (you've heard of a white lie). And, thus, the maybe was added to everything. This prompted me to begin using the word in English, when it was relayed back to my students as a subtle signal: If he says 'maybe' in English, it must be how Americans talk. And so, I have discovered myself saying to people, "MAYBE you should turn in your homework," or "MAYBE I would like to go to bed now," when my true feelings are much stronger. Maybe you should the paragraph again to get an idea of what I'm trying to say.

I long for a good, personal story, but all I can think of lately are small events which passed quickly. I was going to expand the story about the fake honey but it would have involved a great deal of exaggeration and I didn't have the energy. I need all the energy I can for fending off the unending stream of students who want me to teach them English personally. Maybe I am too busy.

All the discussions of indirect communication have finally led me to a new understanding of communication. If someone asks me to teach them English "I am too busy." If I want to leave "I have friends waiting for me." If I don't want to do something "it's not convenient." If someone wants some of my time "I have something to do." All of these wonderful phrases are collectivist road signs. They defuse any situation I want to avoid because there is a long history of this shared language. There's an unspoken agreement between people who want to be indirect, and none of the reasons invite further inquiries. Nobody asks me about WHAT I have to do because they know that they may need to use this phrase in the future with someone else. Even though the phrases are used over and over again, obviously flat denials and thereby more direct in nature than one may think, they are unquestioned.

I would really like to continue this blog but I have friends waiting for me. Cheers.


一支筷子 (一双筷子)

At some point during my language training last summer I learned how to say "a pair of chopsticks" (一双筷子)。 This short phrase opened doors for me. A spoon would look up at me with its hideous, concave face and say, "That's right, they don't think you can use chopsticks."

The phrase is known in most circles as a "double-whammy," proving not only that I can use the chopsticks, but speak Chinese to request them as well. I was unstoppable for awhile, laying low the loudest and most aggressive waiters and waitresses until they succumbed to my invincibility. Handing over the chopsticks they would give me a defeated look that seemed to say, "touché foreigner, touché."

One day everything fell apart. It was a previous haunt and they brought me chopsticks at the beginning of the meal because they respected my weird genius powers of using chopsticks and speaking a key Chinese phrase. In my arrogance I was careless, and a single chopstick fell to the floor. Everyone heard it: people around me, the waiter, the manager, and probably even people across the street. I could imagine all of my previous battles slipping through my hands. "服务员!“ I shouted, and the waiter sauntered over like some predator seeing an easy kill. "一双筷子?” I said uncertainly, hoping to gloss over the fact that I did not know the phrase for "one chopstick." He hit me with something that could have been, "I knew this day would come, finally I can taste victory," but was probably, "do you need a pair or just one?" Either way, the connotation was the same. I had lost, and I limped back to my language class to find out how to say "one chopstick" (一支筷子). But not before buying a consolation ice-cream.

These days I'm beyond the need for picking battles to get this confirmation. Or am I? Sometimes, I must admit, I go too far. In my attempt to compensate for an ocean of ignorance I've been known to say, "I'll take the pineapple chuck on the chopstick," when the simple "Pineapple, please," would suffice. see picture below.

The tenuous connection to the fruit stands around the college is not enough for a meaningful transition, but I'm going there anyway.

In America I never had the luxury of coming home at 10 p.m. and buying 5 bananas, 4 oranges, and 2 chunks of said pineapple (each on the end of one chopstick) for 1 dollar. This is truly a luxury reserved for China and despite the protest, "We have 24 hour grocery stores," I still doubt that there is one only 1 minute from your home.

I talked about all of this because I like imagery. I want you to get a good picture of me walking home late, bag of fruits in hand, waving hello to students as I walk up the hill to my apartment. Once in awhile, when a student performs the culturally acceptable ritual of asking what's in the bag, I proudly show them the two, single chopstick pineapple chunks. 一支筷子.

My constant, stumbling circumlocutions are often dubbed as "废话“ which is either "waste words" or "garbage speech," depending on the mood you're in, although I'm sure there are some snobby linguists who will argue that it means "superfluous words." I don't like snobby linguists.

I'll be rambling along and from the listener(s) comes a "废话," or connotative, "Get to the point!" To which I might respond, "anyway, so that's how I like my coffee" (black).

Most of the time people are forgiving enough to politely ignore what I'm saying and wait for their turn to speak. Usually what gives this away is that they continue to grunt confirmations to my barely intelligible speech while they continue working on the broken internet box at the bottom of my stairwell. This is the point that I wonder why I have stopped to talk with this person in the first place when my specialized internet vocabulary is limited to the two words: "website" and "download". Luckily I have not yet engaged the interest of these random people with whom I speak, and even luckier still, I have not needed to explain to someone that I need to upload pictures or music or anything else.

Basically, the Chinese language always seems to be just over my head. I get by and continue studying, but once in awhile I still try the old trick of saying a single English word at a higher volume (no translator required!). Hand gestures still get me pretty far. Once, in a Chinese grocery store, using entirely hand signals, I was led directly to the nunchuks. Now that's communication.


Guiyang - Chengdu


Studying Chinese

Throughout the past 9 months I have slowly come to learn one important thing: Chinese language acquisition takes time. Countless frustrations change my motivation level and sometimes I avoid studying for days or weeks at a time. A period of success is quickly thwarted by miscommunication in the marketplace or grocery store. There are so many moments of failure that I often forget to relish my successful encounters.

Looking back there has been an interesting transition. When I came to China I knew some basic phrases like "Hello, Goodbye, and Where are you going?" The progression began with listening and shifted towards speaking. As my vocabulary grew, so did my interest in breaking through the next threshold: reading and writing. All of these aspects (listening/reading as input, speaking/writing as output) are interconnected and they seem to require one another in order to make real, sustainable progress. I think this is in part because of repetition of words and structures in different contexts.

At the beginning, when we were learning language for 4 hours every day in Chengdu, we focused on the basics. A dialogue might consist of the following:
"What would you like?"
"A bottle of water."
"Ok, that will be 2 dollars."
"Here is 5 dollars."
"Here is your change."
"Thank you."

These simple dialogues were crucial for unlocking the basic language used in everyday situations. Often they were connected to short vocabulary lists, such as
bottle of water
small change
how much does it cost?

This might be followed by a typical grammar point and then some basic sentence structures.

Today my language study is basically the same. I continue to study vocabulary lists, but my most recent one includes the following:
in charge of
acknowledge mistake
Special Education
make offerings/sacrifices to gods/ancestors
light firecrackers
force (sb to do sth)

It's odd, because these words are all written in pinyin, the Romanization of the Chinese language. I seem to always be "catching up" with the pinyin by doing a sort of back-study for words I've known awhile. Then the writing follows that. For example, I might learn the word for "person," which is "ren." Then I'll learn to read it (人)and, finally, practice and learn to write the character somewhat legibly.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer I've been spoiled with materials for learning the language. I currently have a basic grammar text, practical grammar text, common radicals text, countless audio recordings of basic dialogues, basic phrases pronunciation drills audio, Chinese character reading text, and many more.

The environment is generally very good as well. Many of the students speak Mandarin quite well, and occasionally a taxi driver surprises me with a clear, Beijing-like speech. Recently in Chengdu, once a taxi driver realized that we could communicate in Mandarin, he began giving his opinions about American politics and people. He repeated the phrase, "Americans are good, but the American government is very bad," at least 3 times throughout our conversation. I kept most of my opinions to myself, surprised that he would share his feelings so openly (this might be considered a bit rude by general Chinese cultural standards). But despite the nature of conversations, they always provide me with valuable listening and speaking practice. Even speaking with children helps me get a better grasp on language nuances.

When I get frustrated and lost everything gets cloudy. I don't understand the next few lines of speech and generally I get down on myself for awhile afterwards. Despite all of my work so far, I often still feel like I am no closer to learning the language well. But then I reflect on moments in Chengdu, last summer. My level consisted of muttering a barely understood, "check please," or a garbled, "please open the back door." I take satisfaction in comparing them to a more fluent,

"There are 3 goals of Peace Corps: 1. Help meet the development needs of the host country, 2. Help the Chinese people better understand Americans, 3. Help Americans better understand the Chinese. (Both sides have huge misconceptions, there is a mutual misunderstanding)."



We were just outside a small dumpling restaurant in Chongqing, a city of about 4 million people, when it happened. I was talking about international chess (the term used for non-Chinese chess in China) with another volunteer. That’s when I heard the yelling and the crying.

I was still in awe of the difference between my experiences in Anshun and that of the volunteers who lived in this enormous city. The local volunteers had casually talked through dinner about their students, whose English levels seemed to be very high. Earlier that day we had eaten in a Pizza Hut, which was just down the street from a McDonald’s and a Starbucks. The buildings commonly stretched past 40 stories and people didn’t whisper “foreigner” as we passed: we were old news in this city. When we asked directions the people spoke Mandarin (rather than a thick dialect) and we could understand clearly.

Honestly we felt like country bumpkins. We were 5 volunteers from Guizhou Province (the lowest per capita GDP of any Chinese Province). We had come to Chongqing to visit some of our friends during the National Holiday known as Tomb Sweeping Festival (similar to Memorial Day). Later we might complete this City Mouse, Country Mouse story by hosting our big city friends.

When we arrive we feel out of place. The city’s huge bridges span the Yangtze River and we peer out of taxicabs in awe of the area's sheer size. It was difficult to explain the differences to the local volunteers because there wasn’t much to say: you live in a big place, we live in small places. The river that runs through their city seems to be the difference between economic prosperity and geographic isolation. The opportunities for education and success are abounding, as Chinese friends of volunteers could demonstrate (they spoke English despite having a different major).

After eating dinner we were going to go take the monorail to the city center. I hadn’t yet seen a monorail in China, and I was looking forward to this novelty. As we were leaving I spoke with another volunteer about chess.

I think there were nine of us on the street, but I can’t remember exactly. Something was very clear about the moment: I felt helpless and angry. Afterwards I felt confused and a continued feeling of helplessness haunted me.

At the edge of the sidewalk there was a problem. A young girl (perhaps 12 years old) was crying, and her mother was standing in front of her, yelling. We quickly realized that the girl was kneeling on the sidewalk curb, alongside the road. The woman was yelling something that we couldn’t understand and slapping the girl over and over again. We all stopped. The girl would cry out, the woman would slap her and yell at her, and then it would repeat again. We looked at one another, almost desperate for an easy answer to this predicament. It seemed so clear at the time: the right thing to do was to intervene, but we were too afraid to do so. Right?

I think everyone in our group wanted to intervene. From the look of other Chinese people, they seemed to be thinking the same thing. And yet we all were frozen. It’s likely that we were all thinking about what to do. What could we do? Step in, tell her to stop? Call the police? Perhaps we waited because we were ready to help if the girl fell into the street. But what should we have done? Eventually we wandered down the street, away from the confrontation. We watched from a distance and waited to see if the situation would become more violent. We were all concerned and we felt trapped, but we would certainly intercede if the situation escalated.

Later we talked about it. We needed to say something, we needed to understand and somewhere deep inside I think we sought to justify our inaction. I explained that I was confused and surprised, but if I ever saw something like this again I would certainly intervene. I thought that I had made a mistake this time, but next time I would be ready. Perhaps I would run up to the mother and ask if she had the time, try to distract her or make her realize what she was doing. But then, perhaps she already knew there were others around. Maybe that was part of the punishment for this child. It took the thinking of another volunteer for me to realize that it probably wasn’t our place to intervene.

A friend of mine is another American volunteer whose parents were born in Korea. He challenged my proposition to intervene by saying that I would be trying to contradict 5,000 years of history by doing so. My thoughts were that there ought to be universal human rights, and they ought not include getting slapped while you kneel on the side of the street, but my friend continued and explained that kneeling was a cultural aspect of punishment. Depending on how one looks at the situation, kneeling can be demeaning or show respect for the person in front of you.

During our conversation I never decided that what happened was OK. I find what happened deplorable and I think that Chinese culture does not universally condone such behavior. But I did change my mind about getting involved in a situation I didn’t understand, within a culture that is filled with ambiguity. It also made me think about how I would react to a similar situation in the United States. At what point would I interfere? Would I simply call the police?

There is a common story about a man who is hitting his wife. A passerby decides to intervene and suddenly finds that the wife is helping to defend the husband. In an effort to stop the violence, the passerby becomes the victim of a situation. Again, I don’t want to try and justify what my decision or my thinking, but I want to clarify our thinking and our discussion about the unfortunate event.

There are two things I have been afraid of as I continue to think about this incident. The first worry is that I will give an incorrect impression of Chinese culture. The incident was the first of its kind since I’ve been in China, and it was probably very strange by Chinese standards. If there is one cultural truth to be gleaned from this, it is that Chinese people commonly avoid conflicts. This is related to the desire to maintain harmony. Publicly hitting children is rare (as I’ve said, this was the first time I’ve seen it).

The second worry I have is that my own morality has lost some clarity. I cannot play by the same rules in China; I must adapt to cultural norms and be prepared to be confused. Sometimes there is no right answer, but only shades of consequence. Perhaps it is easy for you to say that you would have gotten involved or not. I know that I was so surprised and shaken by this incident that I can’t stop thinking about it.