The Old Must Go for the New to Come

In January 2010, I crammed 25 years of my life into two little 50 lbs bags and headed out on a China-bound plane to educate the young and inquisitive minds of Dalian on all things American. But why? Why leave a coveted associate producer position at CBS (and six years of journalism training to boot) and head off to a lowly English teaching position in China? Why? Because, frankly, I've learned getting what you think you want out of life isn't always what it's cracked up to be. What follows are the tales of my trials and triumphs (like overcoming my fear of the dreaded squatty potty) and the lessons I've learned along the way...

Monday, May 17, 2010

Beginning to Learn How to Understand

It’s been a while since my last post and I am now in month five of my Sino-soul-sistah experience. And while my primary focus here is, of course, teaching, I’ve also given myself a few other special assignments while I’m here 1.) Visit the three best-known cities in China: Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong; 2.) Find a salon that can do a decent wash and set; 3.) Become fluent enough in Chinese to syke  out the women in the Chinatown nail salons when they start talking to each other about my nasty feet.  

I’m more than halfway to accomplishing Number 1 (I’ve been to Beijing and Hong Kong—on a layover, but that still counts!) And this week, after seeking counsel from my micro-network of kinky-haired sistahs here in Dalian, I've decided to try my first Chinese salon (I’ll let you know how it all goes down.) As for my third and final mission of mastering the Mandarin tongue…well, not so easy. But I’ve resolved that before leaving China, I will at least reach a level equivalent in Chinese to my lower-level, middle-school English students…and I am making progress. Why, just a few weeks ago, the entire Chinese language sounded like an endless string of jigga sher nigga ma’s to my foreign ears. But now, I am deciphering actual words, I’m slowly (very slowly) processing sentences, and I’m understanding.  And it is such a beautiful thing to have sounds that once seemed unintelligible unfold into words and expressions with meaning…And it is so unbelievably gratifying to have that understanding reciprocated by my coworkers, taxi-drivers and other random strangers with which I attempt to converse (though, it is still rare to be completely understood by anybody, thanks to my lethal combination of horrible pronunciation and bad sentence structure.) However, I’m happy to say that I have surprised my Chinese coworkers with a few witty and profound phrases, which I’ve picked up (or rather, looked up) along the way. Here are just a few of my favs:

Wo shi mei guo ren danshi bu ben. (I’m American but not stupid)

Zhen de ma? (Really?)

Che dao shan qian bi you lu. (Where there’s a will, there’s a way.)

Bi shang bu zu, bi xia you yu (It's not the best thing in the world, but it's not the worst either.)

Shuo huang! Ni zuotian wanshang bu zai zhe li le! Wo zai jiuba kanjian ni le, pian zi! (You liar! You weren’t here last night! I saw you in the bar, you cheater!)

Shei fang pi le. (Who farted?)

And while I am still thousands of terms, tones, and tenses away from even moderate fluency, I am also beginning to understand things about China and its people that go far beyond the semantics of language…like the fact that a lot is said without being said at all, which on the surface may strike the average Westerner as nothing special. After all, whether it’s on a conscious or subconscious level, we are all constantly communicating through the unspoken exchange of body language. However, I don’t think Westerners are aware of the extent to which words and true feelings are not expressed in Chinese culture. And for me to attempt to go into all the intricacies of what that means in terms of interactions, thought-patterns, and relationships might be fitting for a 200-page scholarly dissertation...but not for a blog. And besides, it's not like I’m some kind of anthropological expert on all this. However, I will share a telling experience I had during a recent cultural training seminar for the Western teachers.
Prior to the seminar, our boss had asked the Chinese teachers to compose a list of grievances they had with the American teachers. Some of them were reasonable, some of them were totally unreasonable, but the one that stood out in my mind the most was a complaint from an Eastern teacher irritated with the direct and blunt manner in which the American teachers spoke: “If you tell us the truth,” it read, “it will make us feel bad.” (And yes, I did feel a sudden urge at that point to pull a Jack Nicholson and yell, “You can’t handle the truth!”—but I refrained.) However, I’ve now grown quite accustomed to asking Chinese co-workers if they could do a certain task, watching as they smile brightly with an enthusiastic “Yes!” and realizing after it’s almost too late that they never even attempted to do what I asked…OR asking a Chinese co-worker if he or she likes or dislikes something, receiving a resounding “Yes, I love it!” and later hearing from a third-party that they absolutely hated it. In Western culture, “honesty is the best policy” (though, perhaps, more in theory than in practice), but in Chinese culture appeasement seems to take top priority at honesty’s expense. Better to tell a bold-faced lie than to risk embarrassing oneself or others involved for the sake of the truth. And as silly and juvenile as that might initially strike an elitist Western foreigner such as myself, I am actually beginning to understand the nobleness behind such reasoning…the idea that sometimes, the truth must take a backseat to the feelings of friends…and I do consider many of my co-workers friends at this point (and I hope they feel the same... but I guess I'll never truly know, now will I?) And that’s not to say, I think the rationale is right or wrong or saying that I agree with it or can even really relate to it at this point…but I’m beginning to understand it...yi bu yi bu lai ba (step by step), and that’s always a good place to start. Zai jian!

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