Saturday, May 15, 2010

Old China Hand

May 15, 2010

Yesterday, the director of the international exchange office, Han Yan, referred to me as a “old China hand” (Zhōngguótōng). Whenever this phrase is used in reference to me I feel self-conscious, self-doubting—a bit like a fraud. What makes one a “Zhongguo tong”? The fact that I know how to say “old China hand” in Mandarin? When I’m traveling with a group of folks who have limited experience with China I can feel relatively expert. It is true that I can find a bathroom quicker than most people and that I can ask for clarification of ingredients for most dishes that are placed in front of me at a meal. But my “expert” status is always relative to me. Traveling with my husband in China, my knowledge base is often dwarfed when he begins to speak like an old Beijing man and listeners become aware that I, unlike my husband, speak Chinese with an accent. Traveling with students and faculty my expert status is magnified as I help to negotiate the labyrinth of cultural and linguistic confusion that they are confronted with. Somehow my expert status is always relative to my fellow travelers.

My experience of China is rarely solitary, but when it is, when I’m out and about making my way in a Chinese world alone, my feelings of competence can turn on a fen. As familiar as the cityscapes of Beijing and Chongqing are to me, there are plenty of opportunities for me to feel disoriented in these locations, to feel less like a “China-hand” and much more like a stumbling student pressed against my comfort zone. Spatially, I am easily disoriented—something that can be frustrating in an English language environment and highly stressful in a Chinese language environment when all spoken language and signage requires some effort to decipher. When this spatial disorientation is compounded by linguistic and cultural confusion I can quickly shrink.

Last I wrote I was setting off to find by myself a chongzhika to add minutes to my Beijing cell phone number. On my China mobile mission I also hoped to solve my non-China-hand friend and colleague, Tim’s, cell phone woes (he just bought a new phone and it keeps reading “No SIM” when his SIM is inserted). I also carried the hope of purchasing a charger and a Chongqing number for my old pink Nokia cell phone I’ve had with me since I lived in Beijing. As I type this tonight, a full day after this mission, I have three non-working cell phones sitting in my backpack: my “old China hand” status having failed me on all three accounts.

I started out my quest as a true China hand. Alone and long in my stride, I walked buoyantly from my dorm to the main gate of the CTBU campus, stopping just short of the waterfall to purchase a pita-like sandwich from a street vendor. I successfully communicated with him that I wanted my bread stuffed with a fried egg, some tofu gan’r, some pickled cabbage, a nice dose of spicy sauce, but no thank you, none of the meaty broth or hunks of pork. I paid my three yuan, remembered to pull out a piece of tissue from my satchel to have on hand in case it dripped as I walked, and was on my way to the big China Mobile store near the China Industrial Bank. Twenty minutes later, after having navigated a construction zone and having surfaced from a crowded underpass I arrived at the China Mobile store which was still exactly where I had left it last year. All was going swimmingly, until the woman behind the counter began to talk. She was speaking Chongqing dialect, and fast. I had asked her (in Mandarin) upon entering the store, “Do you have a chongzhika for a Beijing number?” Her answer in dialect: “Madeisiiiiiii!” This much I could comprehend….she doesn’t have one. “Do you know where I can get one in Chongqing?” “Is it a 139 number?” (This much I also understood). “Yes, it is, can I recharge this number here?” “Madeisiiiii” Now I was lost. Did she mean I couldn’t recharge my account for a 139 number in Chongqing, or is she simply repeating that she didn’t have any cards at this store? I tried again. This time I got an answer in dialect that I think sounded something like, “I don’t really know, but try the China Mobile in blah, blah, blah, district.” “Where?” One solitary customer shifting impatiently behind me stepped in. “Take the bus number 771. You can catch it across the street.” I have no time for this, I realize. I’ll have to put this errand off until Chengdu. Surely in Chengdu I can put money on my phone.

I dropped the whole question of the chongzhika, pretending I would just take the bus as they had suggested, and moved on to my next question. “Any guesses why this phone says there is no SIM card in it when there is one in it?” I expected the woman behind the counter to say the one other Chongqing expression I know, “Bu xiaodeiiiiiii” (which means “I don’t know”), but this is not her response. Instead, she quickly opens a drawer, grabs another cell phone, pops out Tim’s SIM card, puts it in the phone, then says, “The SIM card works in this phone, so the problem is with your cell phone.” Great, one problem solved, except now I need to take Tim’s phone back to the other China Mobile store where he purchased it and explain to them in Mandarin that it doesn’t work and negotiate an exchange or refund with Chongqing dialect speakers. And I can only do this after I get the original packaging and receipts from Tim. So, the problem is really not solved. I move on to problem number three, “Do you have a charger for this Nokia?” She hunts around under her glass counter and pulls out a charger. We plug it in, and it doesn’t work. “Do you have any others that might work?” “Madeisiiiiii.” “Do you know where I might find one?” “Bu xiaodeiiiiii”. I leave, defeated, three useless phones weighing heavily in my bag, two useful Chongqing expressions telling me exactly where I stand.

On the way back to campus, I’m struck by the sudden realization that I am walking down a very noisy and very dirty street surrounded by hordes of strangers who do not know my name or where I am from. Chongqing dialect rises and falls around me and I remember I still have not located my passport. A horde of middle school students rushes at me from the gates of their campus, presumably on their way to lunch, and I realize none of them are wearing school uniforms. They are wearing jeans and polo shirts, long shorts and tank tops. When did Chinese students stop wearing uniforms? Is this the case in all Chongqing or just this particular school? Everything seems to be changing so quickly, and though the route back to campus is on a single axis I felt profoundly disoriented and a bit anxious. I remember a nightmare that woke me the previous night, a dream about one of my daughters in danger, and I feel the urgent need to Skpe home and connect with my little family. I know I’m not prescient; I wasn’t worried for their safety, just felt like I needed to be grounded in home.

The bus to Chengdu was a five-hour drive, and though my passport was now in my satchel, I had failed to connect with my little family before departure. We had a Chongqing guide on the bus named Kevin who had settled our trip logistics for Chengdu. He also happened to be in possession of a microphone, and for the first hour he indulged the temptation to fill the silent bus space with commentary. Somehow, in the safety of an enclosed bus with another guide at the helm I felt free to surrender to my abstract longing for groundedness. I pulled out my emerald green iPod, a Mother’s Day gift from Jazz and the girls, and indulged this yearning with the singular voice of Greg Brown piped directly into my ears. I chose his album, Further In, first introduced to me by my China-hand friend Joe S-D several years ago in Beijing, then followed this up with the Evening Call (favored by my hubby). By the fourth cut of the second album I realized I was feeling full and relatively grounded and I sank into a deep and solitary nap.

When I woke on the bus I greeted the Sichuan world now filtered through the lens of a bus window. There were plenty of opportunities to see this world in slow motion even though we were on an expressway. Traffic periodically slowed or came to a grinding halt as we encountered Friday afternoon traffic and China’s seemingly eternal construction. As modern as the expressway was, the sights outside the window were reminiscent of bus rides in less comfortable vehicles from a decade ago or longer. The road was filled with trucks: those rickety blue open bed vehicles, piled high with materials and goods of every sort. I saw, among other things: mountains of canvas or plastic bags bulging with lumps; neat square boxes with the labels of electronic companies; shiny new cars produced by Chinese manufacturers; building materials destined for scaffolded and tarped construction sites; and mountains of bundled plastic bottles on their way to be recycled.

When we arrived in Chengdu the driver wove his way expertly, overlapping bike and emergency lanes, to bring us to the designated restaurant for dinner. I was excited: my students were about to experience the famed Sichuan cooking in the provincial capital. I asked our guide about ordering some of my favorite dishes that I wanted to share, but he informed me that he had already set the menu, and he thought the students would enjoy this meal. He was right, some of the students did really enjoy this meal because it was the first meal they dared to actually try to sample everything. Those were our pickiest of picky eaters; the folks that will only eat foods colored white that remotely resemble American cooking. The rest of us glanced at one another, puzzled. It is difficult to get a bad meal in China and this was a truly bad meal, nearly tasteless. Where were the famed mixes of savory and sweet, the bowls of noodles with spicy peanuts, the tofu in its bright red sauce, the mountains of fried potato strips sprinkled with Sichuan peppercorns? Huddling with the faculty afterwards, they called for an intervention. What kind of tour were we on? Could I convince Kevin we wanted to go local? Looking over Kevin’s suggested itinerary, I began to panic further. Nowhere in there was there time to simply hang and relax in a Chengdu teahouse to join the city’s denizens as they play cards and mahjong, fan one another and consume sunflower seeds.

What followed was an intense dance with Kevin, my finding the words to explain our interests, his overcoming initial defensiveness to move to a place of genuine interest in facilitating our experience. He was amazingly adaptive and flexible. Together, we looked at the itinerary for our weekend in Chengdu and made some adjustments. We scrapped a visit to the Temple for the Ministry of War (Wuhou Ci) wedged in after a visit to the panda visit and the silk factory, but before dinner and Sichuan opera. Instead, we inserted a post-lunch stop at the huge and lively People’s Park (Renmin Gongyuan), where we could hang out at an enormous outdoor tea house and negotiate with roving vendors clicking their metal instruments and brushes to get our attention, offering to clean the ear wax from our ears or give us neck and shoulder massages.

I’m writing this after a long, but satisfying day in Chengdu, thrilled with our group experience. At various points during the day Kevin and I relied on one another. When the group called for a restroom upon entry to the Panda breeding center, he herded them away from the museum complex and down a long a winding path until we arrived at a small building far away from the other bus loads of visitors and the distractions of the gift shop, but close to the exhibit of adolescent male pandas just about to enjoy a bamboo feeding. I marveled at his foresight and his expertise in herding a large group of distractible shoppers. But there were also times he drew on my local knowledge of Chengdu from my experience years ago as a researcher here, genuinely intrigued by my memories of this city and my desire to share some of my favorite localities with my students. It was a day of being an “old China hand”—a day of playing the role of helping to bridge two (or more!) cultural and linguistic worlds, and a day of finding a new Chinese friend in Kevin.

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