A Letter to Chinese Language Learners

With the end of the semester upon us, I know there are thousands out there who are completing a course of Chinese language learning.  Maybe it was a semester; maybe a year; maybe two years. It doesn’t matter. The hard slog is nearing an end ( or perhaps already over for you), and you’re ready to get on with the next thing, which of course includes being a life-long learner.

For most of us, studying Chinese has been and will always be somewhat of a chore. There is the day-to-day sameness of classes and tutors and personal study; the never-diminishing stack of character flash-cards that have to be memorized; another tutor time that has to be planned.

For many of us, the learning – those moments when we discover something or finally figure something out – will always be fun. Like when you figure out that the literal translation of vacuum cleaner is ‘suck dust machine.” When you begin to see that there is meaning (and beauty) in Chinese characters – they aren’t just chicken scratch.  When you use that new pattern or phrase you have been trying to master, and it works!

But for all of us, the ability to communicate in Chinese – to converse with people on a deeper level, on their terms (and using their terms) is first and foremost a privilege.

To be sure, it doesn’t always feel like a privilege to know the language and live here – when we’re walking home through a rubble and garbage-strewn alleyway; when we’re nearly turned into road kill by a homicidal truck driver; or when we’re trying to extricate ourselves from a guanxi web (personal connections).

No matter how we feel about it (an emotion that changes from day to day), the fact remains that it is a privilege for which we should be grateful.

This new language we have acquired (or are still acquiring) is not just a tool to get so that we can talk TO our Chinese friends and colleagues. It is a tool that allows us to learn FROM them.

Learn before teaching; listen before talking.

It is their country; their language; their culture, and we are allowed to be participants.

That, my friends and fellow language learners, is a privilege.

Where did the Wall Go?

Well, it seemed like a reasonable idea.  Due to time constraints, we would take our group of 60+ new teachers to the Great Wall at Badaling instead of Mutyianyu in the afternoon.  Since it is closer, we could get up, climb a bit, then make it back into town before the dreaded Friday evening rush hour descends. Our collective memory of Badaling is that the wall was easier to get on (no hiking up 1000 steps or having to ride a cable car), and for those who didn’t feel like hiking, there was always Starbucks, KFC, and a bit of shopping.

What we didn’t count on, however, was the  fact that vehicles are no longer allowed within about 1km of the entrance to the wall.  Our driver dropped us at a parking lot I had never seen before that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere and told us to continue walking up the highway.  So there I was, being followed by 60+ laowai (foreigners) trudging up the highway looking for the entrance to the Great Wall.  I kept looking up the mountains towering around us and saw nothing of the wall.

“Where’s the Wall,” they asked.

“Beats me!” I replied.

This did not instill them with confidence.

But we kept walking.

We finally staggered into another parking lot (why the driver hadn’t taken us there, I don’t know), which had a sign over a doorway that said “this way to the great wall.”

Huh?  They moved the wall inside?

Half the group went on in, while I stayed back with the dozen or so who had been lured into the toilets. We too entered the “this is the way to the great wall” door, climbed the stairs past the trinket-peddlers, and then emerged once again onto the road, where we still had to walk for another 200 meters to get to the wall. We finally arrived at the actual entrance about 45 minutes after we had gotten off the bus, and following a 1 km walk UPHILL!

The poor folks only had about 30-45 minutes to actually be on the wall before we had to begin making the trek back down the valley to the bus.

Those who weren’t climbing got shut out as well since the KFC was another 500 yards up the highway from the entrance and the Starbucks is no longer.

When we returned to the parking lot, the driver was waiting to give me a thorough scolding for bringing the group here and not to the Juyongguan Great Wall, down at the entrance to the valley. He said in all his years of hauling foreign tour groups around he’d never taken one to Badaling.

I hung my head in shame and said “Yes, we are stupid foreigners. We should have listened to you.  I promise we will next time.”

That made his day!

(Image Source: Beijing Holiday)

The Smoke is Nothing New

A big story in the news in China this week was a yellow haze that enveloped the central city of Wuhan. A couple of netizens went online and suggested that it was the result of a chlorine leak, which stirred up the masses, which forced the government to declare that there was no leak; the cause of the smoke was farmers burning off old stalks in their fields.

Then they arrested the rumor-mongers.

Since then there has been much debate about the plausibility of the haze being the result of smoke, with netizens (Chinese and foreign) wondering why this would suddenly be a new phenomenon, given the fact that peasants burn their fields every year.

Well, it isn’t new.

In the early 2000’s Beijing even had the word “smoke” as a category for the weather forcast.  I wrote about it in a post to this blog in November of 2005:

Tonight as I was riding home on my bicycle, I noticed the air smelled of smoke.  When I got home I checked the Yahoo! weather for Beijing (I need to know how many layers of clothes to wear tomorrow), and, under “current conditions,” it said, simply, SMOKE.  This is the only city I know of where SMOKE is one of the possible descriptors used for the weather report.  It’s not uncommon to get SMOKE this time of year because all across the North China Plains, peasants are burning the fields after the harvest.  I’ve been in rural areas of Shandong this time of year where it was so thick you could barely see across the street.

But here’s a thought….in a society where 70% of the males smoke, does anyone really notice?

Cough, cough.

Nobody fussed. Nobody started rumors. We just donned our masks or stayed indoors.

Peasants burning their fields and whole cities being enveloped by the resulting smoke is nothing new in China.

What is new is an internet environment that allows millions to go online and fuss.

[Image Source: The Raw Story]

Becoming Normal

Living cross-cultural living means living with a nearly constant barrage of surprises. Particularly for those of us who have been abroad for a long time, it’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve got the place figured out, that we know what’s up and what’s down, what’s in and what’s out. Sometimes we even seem to know what to expect and what not to expect.

When those thoughts creep in, beware…  something is likely to come out of left field and remind us that we are still pretty clueless about all the little things that go on in the society around us. The unexpected may throw us for a loop, causing frustration, or even anger. More often than not, however, if we are paying attention they can be positive experiences which open windows, allowing us to see that the society which we so poorly understand, and which we sometimes think barely functions, is, in fact rather “normal."  At least for a few minutes, then, we might have the feeling of being an insider instead of the outsider that we in reality always are.

An experience I had while still living in Changchun, Jilin in the 1990’s bears this out. As I was in my kitchen one afternoon making supper (that's definitely NOT normal), I heard a knock at the door. Like most Chinese apartment buildings, this one had a security door, so someone knocking at my door in itself was a bit unusual. Normally someone visiting me would ‘buzz’ me from the outside and I would (after identifying them) open the outside door for them via a magic button. Ignoring a simple rule of common sense like looking through the peep hole and asking who was out there, I just opened the door, assuming it was one of American colleagues who lived on the fourth floor.

I was wrong! When I opened the door, there stood a rather smallish young woman, dressed in a funny grey robe and hat.

In such a situation, I suspect that the last thing on earth this woman expected to see on the other side of the door was a slightly oversized foreign woman with yellow hair and fair skin, and upon seeing said woman, she would most likely either freeze, say excuse me and move on, or if she were scared enough, maybe even scream! After all, if one is Chinese, one expects the door to be answered by a Chinese, not a foreigner! Not this lady, though. She was a picture of poise, and as if my presence were the most normal thing in the world, smilingly launched into some kind of speech, talking a mile a minute.

Keep in mind that at this point I had lived in China for 10 years, and had been working on my Chinese language skills for 8 of those—but at that moment I could not understand a word this sweet lady (should I say girl?) was saying. NOT ONE WORD! I could tell this was not going to be a positive language experience. Either she was simply talking too fast (possible), was speaking some obscure dialect (unlikely), or was using such formalized speech that included ONLY vocabulary I’d never studied (probable).

My first response was to simply tell her that I didn’t understand, hoping that she would take pity on me, excuse herself, and leave quietly. But she was on a mission, so when I told her I didn’t understand, she just smiled, showed me her card (with a photo and the ubiquitous red stamp), and started her speech all over again. “I still don’t understand”, I pleaded, but to no avail.

I realized that my only hope of understanding her was to get her away from her prepared speech and using more colloquial language. “Just what is it that you want me to do?” I asked, this time going for the more direct approach.

Sighing, but without breaking her sweet smile, she plunged in again. It was still the speech, still formal, but this time I caught what seemed to me to be three essential words: “temple”, “donate money”, and “repairs”.

AHAH! Suddenly her attire made sense. She was a young nun from a Buddhist temple, going door-to-door collecting donations for temple repairs! Wanting to be sure of my conclusion, I asked her if that was who she was and what she was doing. “Yes!”

Now we were both smiling, feeling very pleased with our success. She showed me her notebook filled with names of my neighbors who had promised donations (a little peer pressure never hurts). I told her that I was a Christian, and therefore preferred to donate my money to the church. “Oh, but Buddhism and Christianity are almost the same,” she replied. I assured her that they weren’t and that I still preferred to donate my money to the church. “I’m sorry.” One more smile, a shrug of the shoulders, and she was on her way up the stairs.

I call this a “normalizing” event, and the normalizing came in two forms: One was in seeing a way  this society has for people to make charitable donations, even to religious entities. The other was in being treated like everyone else in the building. I got no special treatment, positive or negative, because I was a foreigner. At least for a brief time, I was a resident, a member of the speech community, and the same expectations were being placed on me as were being placed on my neighbors.

I went back into the kitchen smiling.


Sneaking a Piano into a Labor Camp

During the Cultural Revolution, Zhu Xiao-mei, a budding pianist at the Beijing Music Conservatory was sent (along with some of her classmates) to a labor camp near Zhangjiakou, a small city about 100 miles northwest of Beijing. She would remain there for five years.

Life in the camp was brutal, but security was lax enough that she was able to escape for a time and make arrangements to have her piano secretly sent to the labor camp. With her beloved piano nearby, she was able to sneak off to practice, developing skills and using the piano as her means of coping with and healing from the brutality she suffered.

When the Cultural Revolution ended, she was allowed to return to the Conservatory to continue here studies. It soon became clear to her that there were no avenues in China to pursue her music, so she left for Hong Kong. From there she went to the US, and finally to France, where today she is an accomplished concert pianist.

Zhu Xiao-mei tells her story in the book The Secret Piano: From Mao’s Labor Camps to Bach’s Goldberg Variations. 

I HIGHLY recommend it.

She has also just released a new CD called Bach: Goldberg Variations.











(photos: Amazon.com)

Sipping Tea from a Magazine

This is for all my tea-drinking friends out there. The March edition of the China Heritage Quarterly, one of my favorite online sources for all things Chinese is completely devoted to a subject that is near and dear to pretty much every Chinese heart — TEA!

I realize this may seem strange, but even after almost thirty years here I’m still not a huge tea-drinker. It’s not that I don’t like tea — I do. It’s just not a drink I tend to go out of my way to have.  If it’s served I’m happy enough to drink it, but I’m not likely to make myself a “cuppa” (as the Brits say) at home or carry it around with me in a thermos. Iced tea is fine, so long as it does NOT have either lemon or sugar in it.

I grew up in Pakistan where we drank a lot of “chai”—a brew of tea, milk, and sugar, all boiled together.  I chuckle whenever I walk into a coffee shop or cafe that takes itself a bit too seriously and see that they are selling ‘chai’ as a trendy drink. Chai? Trendy?  Give me a break. Chai is best drunk by pouring some onto a saucer and drinking from the saucer.  Try doing that in Starbucks someday and see what happens!

The only times I consume large quantities of tea here are when I hang out at my friend’s tea house and drink Pu’er tea all afternoon.  We have to drink seven rounds as part of the ceremony….and THEN the serious drinking begins.  If I have a group of visitors in tow (which is usually the case) I have to translate her 30 minute tea ceremony, which includes a half dozen poems.  Since there’s no way I can translate a poem, I just toss in the phrase “she just recited a poem about how wonderful tea is.” Works every time!

Which brings us back to the China Heritage Quarterly. If I can steep myself in this issue, I’m sure I’ll be a better translator of the tea ceremony the next time I take a group to the tea house.

Here is an excerpt from the introduction to this month’s issue:

Tea and politics, teahouses and activism, gathering and gossiping, all of these things mark the life of tea in China’s largest inland empire, that of Sichuan 四川. Given the dramatic events of the first months of the Dragon Year of 2012, an ancient saying about the restive nature of what was once the Kingdom of Shu 蜀 would appear to be an appropriate place to launch our issue-length meditation on tea.

In Sichuan they call it ‘laying out the dragon formation’ 擺龍門陣. An ancient military tactic famous in China’s southwest, the ‘dragon formation’ has, over the years, became a popular expression used to describe the setting of verbal stoushes and gossip. In teahouses throughout the province, men and women have gathered over the years, often sitting on bamboo stools or reclining chairs, with small tables scattered about, tea cups and teapots mixed among clutches of locals, visitors and passers-by. Amidst the clatter and the long, slow sipping of tea, people discuss matters pertaining to ‘All-Under-Heaven’ 天下事兒. Although the Internet has become the virtual space of choice for the movement of idle chatter in recent years, it is the heritage of tea and the teahouse that bound people in conversation and conviviality in the past.

In the teahouse people would engage in idle gossip 閒談, chat 聊天, rant 侃山 and brag shamelessly 吹牛. It was, and in many places throughout China, an environment in which tall tales 大話 and arrant nonsense 廢話 can hold the day; it’s also where the chatter on the streets 道聽途說 is elaborated and circulates with the speed of a prairie fire. It is over tea too that people gather to play mah-jongg with clamorous concentration, although tea is just as much a boon companion that is suited to quieter moments of relaxed repose 閒適 and thoughtfulness 静思, as it is for conviviality and calm conversation.

Here is a taste of some of the articles that you will find in the magazine this month:

A Short History of Tea in China

The Gentle Art of Tea-Drinking

On Tea and Friendships

The Strange Tale of the Cultural Revolution Tea Industry

Sip away……



All the Tea in China

The Harmonica Club

Cultural Revolution Tea

Tea and Games






A Village Slowly Dies

I took a stroll this afternoon through the migrant village between my house and the office. The announcement that the village was to be razed went up a little over a month ago, and now the village is slowly being demolished.


Our favorite restaurant sits on the edge of this village, but is still hanging on. I have heard that the owner of the building has gone to court to get more money, and that this might delay the actual destruction of the restaurant by a few months.

But as this sign hanging along the bridge leading into the village proclaims, the demise of the restaurant is not in question; just the timing: “unwavering in our determination to demolish; the decision to demolish will not be changed.”


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