Tag Archives: Language

Taiwan: China, But Not China

If you’ve lived in China, going to Taiwan is a like going to an alternate universe. China, but not China.

It’s a place that invites comparison and analogy, and I found myself struggling to get a grip on the enormous familiarity of the place while enumerating its many differences from the Mainland.

It’s like China but without all the people!

It’s like China but without all the authoritarianism!

It’s like China but everyone in Taiwan stands in line and says please and thank you!

It’s like China but with freedom of the press and tropical beaches and absurdly delicious Southeast Asian-influenced food!

And when I put it like that, it kind of sounds like China…but paradise.

There were plenty of things about Taiwan that flummoxed me – for example, the fact that I could speak to people, but had a really hard time reading anything at all. Taiwan uses traditional Chinese characters, whereas the Mainland uses a system of simplified Chinese characters; a brief example of how complicated this can be is the name of Taiwan itself. In simplified characters it looks like this: 台湾. In traditional characters, it’s this: 臺灣 – i.e. so complicated that you can’t even see all the individual strokes on your computer screen.

It seems to me that the difference between Mainland Mandarin and Taiwanese Mandarin is about as big as the difference between British and American English. As an American, you probably wouldn’t have too much trouble understanding British English – but that’s because you’re a native English speaker. (Unless a Brit told you to do something like “Kindly put your counterpane on the car bonnet,” in which case you’d probably be mystified.) As a non-native Mandarin speaker, I was often left wondering what on earth people were talking about when they told me I could ride my 机车 to the 捷運 (ride my motorcycle to the subway), because I would have said that I was going to ride my 电动车 to the 地铁.

I know this is all a little abstract if you don’t speak Chinese, so let me get right to the point: political realities aside, for those of you who are wondering if Taiwan feels like it’s a part of China when you visit – no. It does not. It feels like a different country.

*****

In the end, our trip to Taiwan was slightly star-crossed. First, we missed our flight, which caused much anxiety and laying out of additional dollar bills. After spending our first few days exploring Taipei, it began to bucket down rain the night before heading to Hualien.

By the time we hit Hualien, we were in the throes of Tropical Storm Nalgae, meaning that we could barely leave our hotel room for two full days. Then I woke up with the worst head cold I’ve had in years, complete with giant, swollen glands and a croaky voice that I was hoping sounded seductive but I’m pretty sure just sounded tubercular.

After the rain finally cleared we were able to see Taroko Gorge and Taiwan’s dazzling East Coast, and had a blissful couple days on Green Island – and then RP’s grandfather passed away. We ditched plans for visiting the city of Tainan and headed straight back to Taipei so that RP could get the next flight out to New York via Tokyo.

I figure that if I loved Taiwan, even considering all that went wrong, it must be a highly lovable place. My affection for the place, however, was tinged with the familiar feeling that there was some pretty serious misdirection going on when I was educated about “Chinese culture” as an undergrad in East Asian Studies.

I’ve written before about the importance that was given to Mainland China when I was an undergraduate – Taiwan was never spoken of except in little staged debates to test your vocabulary (“cross-strait relations”, “political autonomy”, “difference of opinion”…). When, as a first year student, I expressed interest in East Asian Studies, I was immediately counseled to go study in China – meaning Beijing. This was where “real China” was, I was told – the only China. But I’ve discovered that that is a little like a Chinese student wanting to study English in “the West” simply being told to go to America – as if there were no Canada, England, or Australia.

Having spent so much time studying Mandarin and being focused on the Mainland, going to Taiwan made me do a double take. Wait- I could have studied here instead? In this place where they speak and write a beautiful Mandarin? Where they have an entirely alternate history, dominant culture, religious practices, minority languages, and view of the world?

Why didn’t anyone tell me?!

Again, it’s not that the Mainland isn’t fascinating – it’s that there are other fascinating places to experience Chinese culture, and these places are usually ignored in institutional settings like universities. I have to admit that it’s a little late – or, better, just bad timing – for me to start over in my engagement with “Chinese culture”. You all know that I’m a little weary of the whole business. I’m hoping that, when I return to the States and take a bit of a break from all things Chinese, I’ll be ready to re-engage and that Taiwan (and diaspora Chinese cultures) will be a part of that process. Taiwan inspired me to reassess my education about China and my level of Mandarin ability (ugh), and in return I ought to give it some serious attention.

For now, here are the places we went on our little trip to an alternate universe:

As everyone does, we began with several days in Taipei.

Longshan Temple

Danshui Night Market. (Apologies to squid rights activitists; there has been lots of squid violence on this blog.)

Taipei 101, the 2nd tallest building in the world (Dubai is such a spoiler)

We then hopped on a train for the several hour ride to Hualien, generally viewed as a good base city for exploring the East Coast. When the tropical storm finally cleared, we managed to get out for a beautiful walk in classic RP fashion (RP walk = normal person walk duration [hours] x 4 + mud + bushwhacking).

Qixingtan

We finally decided to make a break for Taroko Gorge, our entire purpose for coming to Hualien. We rented a car in Hualien, drove to the parking lot of Taroko National Park, caught a public bus into the Gorge, and then walked the many kilometers back to the car. (Taroko National Park has a very good website here if you’re planning a trip.)

Even if you’ve just hiked Tiger Leaping Gorge, Taroko is totally worth it. Unfortunately, damage done by the storm meant that the normal crystal blue river flowing through the Gorge was mostly grey, and many of the small hiking trails were closed. It was glorious nonetheless.

After hiking out to the car, we drove down Taiwan’s East Coast Highway 11 as the sun set. We weren’t sure where we would be sleeping but, as if by magic, the world’s most perfect B&B appeared right on the coast. We were the only guests. We stepped out briefly for the freshest seafood dinner imaginable, being served up just down the road, and then sat on a deck overlooking the Philippine Sea, wondering how we might manage to convince the B&B owner to let us stay forever.

We awoke at 5:30am for the sunrise.

We ended our coastal drive at Taitung, where we returned the car and spent a night before getting on the ferry to Green Island, less than an hour’s ride away. (Note: Much is made of the fact that this is a very bumpy ride and people often get seasick. That’s all true, but if you just take a little sea sickness medicine in advance and have a few saltines, you’ll be totally fine. Seriously not worth paying double the price to take a puddle jumper flight…)

Green Island is a little gem off Taiwan’s southern east coast where you can snorkel, swim, and get yourself all wrinkly in the hot springs. Your motorcycling skills had better be up to snuff, since that’s how you get around the island. (I managed to motorcycle us all around and, unlike on Cat Bat in Vietnam, didn’t crash! Very pleased.)

Green Island is also a former penal colony for political prisoners during Taiwan’s martial law period; there is now a “Human Rights Memorial” to those prisoners. I was under the misapprehension that the island was only a former place of imprisonment, but in fact, you can walk right by the building that still incarcerates some of Taiwan’s (supposedly non-political) prisoners. Just in case you start to feel too good about your vacation.

Sleeping Beauty Rock

Human Rights Memorial

Perfect water for swimming

After finding out that we needed to get back to Taipei immediately, we took the ferry back to Taitung, took a train to Kaosiung, and managed to get the highspeed rail back to the capital. It’s amazing; you can get from Taiwan’s southern-most tip back to Taipei in just a few hours.

And the rest you know: after a couple days on my own in Taipei, I flew back to the Mainland for some solo adventuring.

More photos from our trip to Taiwan can be viewed here and here.

15 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Experience Overload Part 3: Miracles and Meltdowns

Miriam (Barbara’s foreign nurse friend) runs a free clinic out of her home one day a week, so Barbara and I were able to go a couple times when we were in the Valley. The clinic is a pure act of charity; Miriam’s resources to treat the many people who sit on her front porch each week are limited, and people are often seeking help for complex illnesses and injuries. Sometimes frustration runs high because people are clearly looking for a miracle cure – but in order to know why this is reasonable, you have to understand the mysterious circumstances under which healthcare is sometimes provided here.

As in many places in China, tuberculosis is endemic to the Valley. Cases here are often allowed to progress to a stage rarely seen elsewhere; permanent lung damage, disabilities from TB that has spread to and destroyed skeletal joints, and deaths are not uncommon. The government, however, does provide a certain amount of TB medication for free if you test positive, and Miriam is often able to arrange for a patient to receive this treatment. That can, indeed, seem miraculous – one day you have a cough and a fever, the next day you’re diagnosed with TB, and then this foreign lady makes sure that you get free medication and home visits so that you’re not going to die! From that perspective, why shouldn’t people turn up expecting to be cured of all manner of diseases?

Clinic days are long; the first patients have shown up by 8:30am, and we often weren’t finished until 5pm. At a desk job, that’s just a regular day – but when you’re seeing an endless stream of patients who often cannot be helped, you want to go home and go to bed without dinner at 6 o’clock.

What complicates matters is that many of the patients we saw had actually already been seen by a physician in one place or another – the Valley hospital or a village clinic – and simply did not like or did not understand the answers they received.

Some of these patients face deeply serious problems: one young mother brought her 2-month old baby girl to the clinic for intractable chest congestion. I have never seen a baby that looked like this before – she cried endlessly in a way that seemed to choke her every five minutes. She was clearly unable to breathe properly, and turned blue several times. At the Valley hospital the mother had been told that the baby did not have pneumonia, and they didn’t know what to do for her.

Fearing that perhaps the baby had cystic fibrosis, which would be tantamount to a quick death sentence in a place like the Valley, Barbara and Miriam advised the mother to take the baby immediately to the city hospital four hours away for further tests. Unfortunately, the young mother was living alone with the baby at home for the next few days, with her husband off working and in possession of all of the money. There was a discussion of scraping together enough money to lend her so that she could get to the city, but someone who spoke Azu and Mandarin would have to accompany her, since she did not speak Mandarin and the city hospital staff do not speak Azu. No such person could be found on such short notice.

Then there are other patients who have been told what to do to fix their health problems and are simply being stubborn about it. One amazingly wizened Azu woman presented herself on Miriam’s front porch complaining of eye troubles, eventually revealing that she had been diagnosed at the hospital with cataracts in both eyes. The woman was a serious character: at 75 years old, she stood perhaps two and half feet tall, a consequence of her dwarfism. She was dressed as if she had been plucked from her village and drafted into the Cultural Revolution-era military; she wore the traditional Azu women’s patterned skirt and embroidered vest, strung from neck to knees in beads and large shells, and had paired them with a camouflage green Mao hat and combat boots of the kind favored by the People’s Liberation Army.

Despite the fact that she had been correctly diagnosed, and that her problem was fixable with a very simple surgery that would be provided for free by a hospital right down the road, she refused to go, claiming that the doctors there would kill her. She quickly announced that she would only have her eyes operated on by a foreigner, and demanded to be sent to Kunming for said mythical foreigner to schedule her surgery.

We explained to her, in the nicest possible terms, that she was being a huge pain in the ass, and that if she wanted her sight back she should go get her free surgery down the road, where they were not going to kill her.

“You people aren’t helping me!” she companied, adding, “Plus my knees and hips are sore.”

Lady, you are a 75-year old with dwarfism who has done manual labor in the fields her whole life. My joints would hurt too.

*****

One of the strangest problems we’ve encountered at the clinic is infertility. Barbara and I were meant to be focusing on any OB/GYN patients, and apart from a few women with minor infections, they all seemed to be having trouble getting pregnant.

Infertility can be difficult to cure even if you have lots of money and all of the latest technology available to you. So what do you do when women show up at a free clinic halfway up a mountain side, with no lab technology, no samples of or understanding of any medications they’ve previously been given, and tell you that they can’t seem to get pregnant?

These are not 40-year old women who put off having children because they were busy with their careers or because they couldn’t find a suitable mate. Azu girls often start marrying by age 16, and everyone seems to be married by age 20. Marriage and childbearing and extremely culturally important, and therefore nearly universal. So again: what do you say to a 26-year old in seemingly good health, who had one still birth when she was 8 months pregnant seven years ago, who has been trying to get pregnant ever since, but who doesn’t quite understand the mechanics of how pregnancy actually happens?

Pesticide use on crops in the Valley is ubiquitous, and women often apply it with their bare hands – perhaps that’s the problem? Perhaps it’s their husbands who are infertile, having contracted sexually transmitted infections? Perhaps this incidence of infertility is no higher than normal in a population of this size, but because it’s so embarrassing for Azu women to discuss it they will only come to this free clinic, making it seem like we’re seeing unreasonably large numbers of infertile women? Who knows.

We drew lots of pictures, and explained in simple terms about the ovum traveling down the fallopian tube. We went over the possible causes of infertility, and even tried to explain how to monitor your temperature and other symptoms daily to determine whether or not ovulation is occurring. Even as I was explaining these things, I could see how hopeless the situation probably was for most of these women. They seemed to understand what we were saying, but were quiet; perhaps they knew how hopeless it was as well.

If we could help everyone who came to the clinic, the days would simply have been exhausting. But because we couldn’t help many of them, the days were not only physically tiring but full of anguish. Azu people are often happy to explain their health problems in front of other Azu, presumably because they are used to the very public nature of village life – so when one 36-year old woman approached me speaking so quietly that she was almost inaudible, I knew her problem must be very serious. Barbara and I took her into an inside room, where she presented us with a CT scan of her uterus. I don’t have any training in reading CT films, but even I could see that her uterus had some sort of mass in it, and what looked like only one fallopian tube. She said she had been trying to get pregnant for six years, and then dissolved into sobbing. She lifted her shirt to show the thick, dark scars lacing her abdomen from previous gynecological surgeries.

It was certainly not my place to give this woman a possibly faulty reading of her CT films, nor to pretend to understand how much pressure she must be receiving from her family to have a child at age 36. What was clear was that no one had ever sat with her for half an hour and allowed her to say how scared and upset she was about her infertility. We gave her advice as best we could, and she cried, “It’s hopeless, isn’t it? Isn’t it hopeless?”

It’s at times like these that I find myself wishing away the next few years, so that I can be done with my nurse-midwifery training and actually help a woman like this. Did we do anything to help any of these women in the Valley? Did we offer them hope, simply with our presence, that we then dashed by being unable to fix their problems?

How do you know when you’ve done a good enough job?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Out of Asia – Part I: New Zealand

Let’s face it: my life is bound up with Asia. Between my birth and first few years spent in Singapore, my years spent living in China, and all of my travel in South and Southeast Asia (I’ve now been to every SE Asian country except Brunei), I will have spent more than a quarter of my life in Asia by the time RP and I make our real exit from China next spring.

So I think it’s understandable that Asia and I need a little time away from each other sometimes. Often I haven’t been able to pinpoint this as the exact source of my weariness, but then when we landed in New Zealand for our honeymoon it was as if a huge weight had been lifted from my chest; I breathed easily for the first time in what seemed like months. And when I flew into Beirut a couple weeks ago, sailing over the snow-covered peaks of the Mount Lebanon range and descending towards the sparkling embrace of the Mediterranean, all I could think was Oh yes – the rest of the world. I remember you.

The different cultural reference points, staple ingredients, language families, religions – the impression these things make is immediate and profound. The Chinese sphere of cultural influence is wide and deep; you can get on a plane and travels for many hours in several directions, and still be within it.

Because China is such a deeply foreign place to live as an American, and because I have lived here for a little while, it can be tempting to think that I know about “the world”. That’s not the case, of course – I know about China. And a few other places in Asia. But there is so much more to see, so much that I don’t understand, so many peoples of whom I know almost nothing.

(Case in point: it took most of the flight from Kunming to Dubai, en route to Lebanon, to put my finger on where the 35 boisterous and brightly dressed women with Central Asian features who refused to sit down on my flight were from. Not Arabic speaking, and able to speak only broken Mandarin…anyone know? They were Uighur, of course.)

I’ve been coming to China for the past seven and a half years, and while I’m not done with this place – we’re not planning on moving back to the States until next year – I am ready for a little diversity. Next up, later this summer: Russia, by way of Berlin. Oh yes! I’m talkin St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, my friends.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, a photo catch-up. First, the greatest honeymoon in history (biased, whatever): Kunming –> Singapore –> New Zealand –> Melbourne –> Kunming.

It’s already taken me FOUR DAYS to try to put up this post, so enough gabbing…Each pic below links to the full gallery of photos we took in that place.

There’s no way to fly straight from Kunming to New Zealand, so we stopped over in Singapore:

Here’s the apartment building I lived in when I was a baby…

Then on to Christchurch (after the September 2010 earthquake that disturbed people severely and damaged buildings, but before the mid-February 2011 earthquake that killed over 160 people and destroyed buildings. A tragedy for this lovely place…).

Then a bus to the city of Dunedin, and the Otago Peninsula, where we biked, rode horses, and saw the most beautiful animals – yellow-eyed penguins, sea lions, albatrosses – all living in the wild.

Another bus brought us to Te Anau, to the epic Fiordlands of the south island and an unforgettable four days walking the Milford Track.

A bus to Queenstown, home of the world’s most picturesque airport, where we took a staggeringly beautiful flight to the Auckland, on the north island. (It was on this flight that I actually got upset with how stunning the world looks from that vantage point, so close to the Arctic Circle, the Pacific stretching out toward the horizon. It was almost heartbreaking.)

A ferry to Waiheke Island, nearby Auckland, with its rolling green hills, beaches and vineyards – where I learned to love white wine.

And an early flight to Melbourne, where we were lucky to spend a day before heading back to Kunming. (I know – no one’s told you how cool Melbourne is. Trust me when I say that it’s hipster central.)

Best trip ever.

A zisn Peysakh, everybody!

9 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Who Cares About the “Real” China?

And then in December, RP and I went on what we’re calling our “Overseas Chinese Tour”: We met my Dad in Hong Kong a few weeks ago, and basically ate our way through the city (including the seafood of Lamma Island), dousing ourselves in champagne. Dad, you can come back to Asia any time!..

Lamma Island

Seafood on Lamma Island

About to board the Star Ferry

From there we flew to Penang, took a train to Kuala Lumpur, a bus to Melaka (or Malacca, if you prefer), and then a bus over the border to Singapore, my hometown!

Khoo Kongsi Temple in Penang

The old train station in Kuala Lumpur

Melaka from Bukit China (China Hill)

Last night of a tiring, happy trip: Singapore's Lau Pa Sat Hawker Centre

Click here to see all photos from the trip.

I realized a stupidly obvious thing on the Overseas Chinese Tour: my impression of Chinese culture growing up was, like most people living outside the mainland, based on experiences with Chinese immigrants. Most of these immigrants came from a very small number of places in southern China (like Fujian and Guangzhou); they were mostly speakers of Cantonese or Hakka, they served food particular to those regions in restaurants, built neighborhoods using regional architectural styles, took feng shui really seriously and practiced regional versions of Buddhism and Daoism.

Fastforward to my college years: I become interested in studying “Chinese” and “Chinese culture” – and, because this is 2001, what I study is Mandarin. The geographic focus of my classes is mainland China. Being taught by professors who, given their ages, were often studying at a time when foreigners were not allowed into the mainland, forcing them instead to study in Taiwan, I am given the impression that the mainland is where “real” Chinese culture is happening, where the “real” Chinese language is being spoken. No one told me that this might not be the Chinese culture I was interested in – no one told me that there was the option to study anything else.

Now, I get why it’s important to study the culture and history of mainland China, and why Mandarin is a critically important language in the modern world. But it honestly never occurred to me, during my college years and after, that my real cultural interest might lie with the Chinese diaspora. That Cantonese is a more fun and fiery language than Mandarin. That the food from the regions where immigrants tend to originate is, to me, tastier. That the religions practiced are wild and lively and full of ritual and superstition. That what’s going on, culturally, on the mainland might just be a paler version of what’s going on in the diaspora – not the other way around.

RP compared this aptly to Jews in the world (by the way, I swear we talk about stuff other than Jewishness): if you wanted to learn what Jews are about, you could go to Israel. You could learn Hebrew, could become wrapped up in Arab-Israeli conflict, could…I don’t know. Eat hummus. Or you could go to Brooklyn, learn Yiddish, and eat pastrami. In both cases you would be learning about Jews, but the cultural experiences couldn’t be more different. (And for the record, I love me some hummus. And some Brooklyn.)

I need some healing with China. I’m in a frustrated period. I should maybe stop traveling to southeast Asian countries and start traveling within the mainland, to remind myself that there’s a big Chinese world out there – but I should maybe also remember that China itself doesn’t have to be the Chinese world that I inhabit or relate to. I could learn some Cantonese, I could get involved with public health in Chinese-American communities in the US and elsewhere.

I’m convinced that the ability of diaspora cultures to thrive and be vibrant isn’t just related to their often being representative of a small group of determined, gutsy people from a “home country” – it’s also because those cultures can be allowed to develop without the constraints of things like domestic government manipulation, coercive majority languages and destructive calls for nationalism. As long as a cultural group can keep from total assimilation in their new adopted country, it makes sense to me that they could thrive to an even greater extent than possible in their home country.

Why didn’t anybody teach me that in college?

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Yid in Khine: Where Is there No Jewish History?

The Himalayas, that’s where.

Also, I bet you’ve never seen footage of an old Trung lady with a tattooed face performing divination – which is only one of the many reasons you should watch the most recent installment of A Yid In Khine:

I would like to point out that this is the last time I will be listening to RP when he says I don’t need to bring the tripod on one of our little filming adventures. Stupid shaky hand!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Yid in Khine Strikes Again!

Greetings from Bangkok, chickens! I’ve been shuttling back and forth between a hotel room and a conference room for the past week, concerning myself with grand strategizing and teaming agreements, throwing around vast sums of money on spreadsheets and generally feeling extremely important, all on my organization’s dime.

Ah, the joys of the first expat business trip.

While I’m siting here consuming pad thai from room service, enjoy the most recent installment of everyone’s favorite Yiddish internet content, A Yid in Khine! To those of who are convinced that RP is actually is a spy – and there are quite a few of you out there – I submit this as (shaky) evidence that he is actually getting up to something legitimate in northwest Yunnan.

Originally posted on the Forverts website’s video channel.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Yid in Khine!

Is this awesome or WHAT?!

We’re totally the new stars of the online Yiddish world…er…

Take it viral!!

EDITED TO ADD: This is a first of a few of these videos requested by the Forverts, and is on their homepage at the moment at yiddish.forward.com.

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Not Your Father’s Business Trip, Part II: In Which Jessica Sees Red, Toasts Granny

Xishuangbanna -> Pu’er -> Mangdongqidui -> Jinggu -> Pu’er -> Kunming

After staying the night in Xishuangbanna, we were back in the car bright and early for what I thought would be a lengthy trip to Jinggu, but one that would get us there around lunch time. And then the roads were terrible again, and then another bus broke down in front of us…and you get the picture.

Here is where I can personally attest to the fact that it is hard to spend four uninterrupted days in a car with anyone, even people you like. Somewhere on what turned out to be a day-long car ride, all of the little annoyances started to get to me. My colleague who I had previously considered just garrulous I now realized NEVER STOPS TALKING NOT EVEN FOR ONE SECOND IN A DAY. Also, I finally snapped and pointed out that candy wrappers, cigarettes, fruit peelings and tissues belong in a garbage can, not tossed out the window into THE GORGEOUS PRISTINE SCENERY, YOU FOOLS.

Most of all, I got tired of all the random chatter about minority ethnic people, a theme that underlay the whole trip.

This is a complex topic that I will not do justice here, but briefly: China officially recognizes 55 ethnic minorities (separate from the Han majority) who make up around 8% of the population on the mainland and closer to 9.5% if you include Taiwan. Part of what makes Yunnan so interesting is that it is home to 25 of those minority groups (in addition to some of the other minority groups and “sub-groups” who are not officially recognized by the government), accounting for over a third of Yunnan’s population. Some areas of Yunnan, like the one in which RP is doing research, have few if any Han people.

The whole notion of what constitutes an ethnic minority in China is both questionable and somewhat slippery, with different groups of people sometimes having been somewhat arbitrarily ethnically defined, and some choosing to redefine themselves as another ethnic minority (or as members of the Han majority) as decades and generations pass.

Lahu nationality woman grazing her water buffalo

Lahu nationality woman grazing her water buffalo

It is sometimes clear that a person is a member of a particular ethnic minority group by a distinctive kind of clothing they wear or, much less often, by something in their facial features. But it is usually hard to tell if someone has, for example, simply spent their entire life as a farmer and so has darker skin, or if there is something particularly “ethnic-looking” about them. My impression is that many Han people do not know or are not friends with non-Han people, and stereotypes abound.

What do Lahu people do for a living?

They drink.”

I hear that Wa people eat rats!”

These people [grand sweeping gesture] don’t care about anything. They don’t care about money. They don’t care about life.”

And you know what – maybe the Wa do eat rats. I have no idea. The point is that my all-Han colleagues on this trip probably didn’t know either, and seemed content to spout this garbage off-hand whenever it suited them, delivering these pronouncements as mere facts to be recited, like state capitals. And, by the way, a discussion of racial struggle in America in an attempt to open up thoughts on race in China does no good – they are not considered related issues. You will always hear, particularly when you are with a bunch of Han people and even when being stared in the face by the demographic differences that race in China confers, that race is not a big deal in China. That China is unified. That the “Chinese people” feel a certain way about this or that issue. That China has 5,000 years of glorious unbroken history.

I was just winding up to punch my coworker in the face when – deus ex machina! – our car broke down.

***

The unfortunate aspect of our breakdown was that it meant yet another delay in our trip, but the positive aspect was that we broke down in Pu’er, a city famous for its tea. While mechanics peered at the innards of our vehicle, my mood was softened by our sales coordinator for the area, who, in addition to having a penchant for telling dirty jokes and a predilection for wearing electric blue track suits, also happens to know a lot about tea.

He took me to a tea shop with an area for sampling the teas and encouraged me to evaluate them based on the look of the leaves, the richness of color of the poured tea, and the subtleties of the various flavors. He waxed lyrical on upholding Chinese traditions and, changing gears, took the opportunity to expand upon his personal philosophy on ways in which our organization’s operational model could be improved.

I was just starting to forget the frustrations of the day when NM started calling and texting us from the car repair shop wondering WHERE WERE WE WHEN SHE HAD BEEN SITTING THERE WAITING FOR US FOR PRACTICALLY A HUNDRED YEARS?! “Don’t tell her we’ve been sitting around drinking tea,” I whispered to the sales coordinator. “We’ve been sitting here drinking tea!” he announced with a grin.

And we were off again.

***

We finally got to Jinggu around dinner time and, to my total confusion, just kept on going. (You may have guessed at this point that keeping me in the loop was not the favorite activity of my coworkers.) As it turns out, we drove another hour and a half to a village called Mangdongqidui (“mahng-dong-chee-dway”), the home of our sales coordinator’s wife, son and in-laws. Just to stop by for dinner, since we were, ya know, in the neighborhood.

I so wish that this had been a photo-taking opportunity, but it wasn’t. Remember the thing about visiting villages in China? Well, this wasn’t quite like that. I was explicitly invited and, as the first foreigner they had ever encountered, they were quite happy to have me. Still – you don’t go over to someone’s house and take pictures of the furniture. But if, by “rural Chinese village”, you’re thinking muddy lanes, random chickens wandering around and skinny old guys in straw hats with giant baskets of crops slung over their shoulders, then you’ve got the right idea.

I did take a couple photos of the surroundings down the road from where people live:

Looking back from Mangdongqidui

Looking back from Mangdongqidui

Fishing in Mangdongqidui

Fishing in Mangdongqidui

This is the kind of place where you really need to adjust your eyes to understand the economic situation; if you were just dropped here from the big city you probably think, Wow, these are some poor people. In a village of 20 families, this “house” was home to perhaps four adults and two small children, who all slept in basically one large room with informal partitions. Their other major space was a kitchen/dining area, a three-sided room with bare concrete walls and floors. Their electricity consisted of one naked light bulb hung in the kitchen that was only turned on when it was basically pitch black outside. They didn’t have a toilet.

But if you looked more closely, it was clear that these people were relatively prosperous, particularly compared to some of the villages we had seen outside Lancang. Here they had large tracts of land on which they grew sugar cane, tobacco and corn (not exactly subsistence crops, but that’s another matter). They had a few pigs, a couple water buffalo, a small flock of chickens and ducks. I was told that the sales coordinator’s son attends school in far-off Xishuangbanna during the year – something that I’m sure requires a small chunk of cash.

And, to contradict my earlier declarations, the best meal of the whole trip wasn’t at the Dai restaurant in Menghai – it was in that bare concrete kitchen. While the rest of us were banished to the cement courtyard in front of the pig pen, the sales coordinator’s wife and her sister concocted a ridiculous feast for 10 people, which I ate with satisfaction as the daylight faded.

There was some minor toasting, but it was pretty light-hearted and I just took sips. I even toasted someone’s little old grandmother (her idea, not mine) with some kind of apple liquor. I would have asked her what it was but, sadly, almost no one there spoke Mandarin. Those who could translate into Mandarin did and, otherwise, there was just good cheer.

Fat and happy, we eventually piled back into the car for the ride back to Jinggu. All the way back I was saying little thank-yous in my head to Ma Laoshi, Liu Laoshi, Wang Laoshi – all the Chinese teachers who encouraged me to keep up my Mandarin. While being in China is mostly an exercise of kicking myself over the fact that I didn’t work harder in my Chinese classes, that I didn’t study abroad for a solid year, that I haven’t managed to achieve fluency – this was a little moment of seeing the rewards of having learned Chinese.

How else would I have access to these places without Mandarin, even though not everyone can speak it? How else could I see the way in which regular rural people live? And, more importantly: how can I come back to this kind of place? What minority language do I have to learn? What aspects of life here can I explore further? I suppose some people figure out from a distance that they have these interests – but for me it took interacting in person, ever so briefly, with some people in a southwestern Chinese village to see this may be the locus of my interest in China, rather than some office in a big city like Kunming.

***

As I was experiencing it, the next and final day of this trip in Jinggu seemed very significant. Interestingly, it has now faded in my mind compared with dinner in Mangdongqidui. Still, it was definitely the most challenging day of the trip, seeing as I not only needed to put my Big Washington Boss hat back on, but needed to use it to intimidate the director of the local CDC into getting his act together and selling our mosquito nets like he had said he would.

My preparation for this consisted of practicing all the ways in which I was going to speak to him ever-so-seriously about how his office had been screwing up (handily translated by NM, of course), practicing my most stern and boss-like face in the mirror, putting on my least stained pants and trying to arrange my hair into its most intimidating state in attempt to look older. (Unfortunately, my hair takes tropical climes as an excuse to channel Dale Chihuly, so – intimidating, yes, but not really in the way you’d hope.)

It’s difficult to bully someone when they use the time before your little speech is translated to pick their nose, but I think the guy was impressed by the fact that I had come “direct from Washington, DC” to see what was going wrong in his town. Plus, there seemed to be an established set of behaviors for losing face by being yelled at and then lightening the mood by taking everyone out to lunch afterwards. No hard feelings.

I don’t want to hate on poor old Jinggu, but oh man was the food vile. Nicely presented, but well – there’s only so much you can do for fried bees (yes they still have the GIANT GROSS BUG EYES when you eat them) and cow stomach simmered in what was described to me as “stomach juice”. It’s a good thing we were only toasting with wine – which, around these parts, is likely minorly alcoholic grape juice – or I might have lost the ability to keep a straight face.

We were sent off with several bottles each of local produced mango juice (the CDC director proudly informed me that Jinggu was “The Home of the Mango”) and, as a final mango juice toast, he had this to say:

Thank you for coming here from Washington to see our town and thank you for caring about the health of the local people. It is a great shame that you don’t speak Chinese. I hope that you will come again – if I succeed in our project, then you will come back and eat food like this every day! If not, then we don’t deserve another visit.

I rejoined that I was certain, then, that I would see him again.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Not Your Father’s Business Trip, Part I: In which Jessica plays boss, Black Jack

Kunming -> Xishuangbanna -> Lancang -> Menghai -> Xishuangbanna

Last week I got to go on my first business trip since starting my job in Kunming. I had been told that the purpose of this trip was to visit some of the field sites for our malaria program, in order to provide “support and supervision”. In summary: it was amazing. Unique in my life. Possibly even transformative. More on that later.

It was absolutely certain that this trip was going to involve going to areas where people did not speak Mandarin and, even when they did, that they would speak it in an accent incomprehensible to me. Of course, no one would speak English. So I was both nervous about being unable to understand anyone other than my colleague from the Kunming office, NM, and also confused about what useful role I might be able to play in the whole affair. This would all become clear soon enough.

The flight from Kunming south to Xishuangbanna (XSBN) only takes 45 minutes. What could we possibly being doing with the rest of the day, such that we had no meetings planned for the afternoon? It turns out that our first stop was to be at the CDC in Lancang, a 5- or 6-hour drive from XSBN in a 4×4 truck. On a guess, I would say that if there were real roads between XSBN and Lancang, this trip would take maybe 2 hours. Ninety minutes if my Dad were driving the car.

As it stands, the roads are awful – appallingly pocked with craters and strewn with boulders. The kind of roads that lift you out of your seat and have you clinging to your coworkers for dear life for hours at a time (which they do not appreciate). Not only are the roads bad, but you periodically have to stop because there is a random crew of people using minor explosives to excavate rock from the side of the road. Or a group of peasants felling bamboo. Or a giant bus that has collapsed in a giant ditch right in front of you, and now people are pouring out of the bus like ants and swarming around the tires trying to figure out how to get the thing moving again.

So you wait.

I should stop here and apologize: I have almost no pictures from this trip – a trip that took me through southern Yunnan’s breath-taking scenery tropical scenery – because my colleagues never wanted to stop the car so that I could take pictures, and a lot of the areas we were in otherwise were deemed “sensitive” by the CDC and I wasn’t allowed to photograph anything. But on some of our breakdown stops I got to snap a few pictures that will give you an idea of what the scenery looks like:

We wait for trees to be cleared from the road

We wait for trees to be cleared from the road

On the road between Xishuangbanna and Lancang

On the road between Xishuangbanna and Lancang

All of this driving and waiting left plenty of time for me to consider my surroundings and current situation. In the truck with my three Chinese colleagues, chatting about this and that, singing along as the radio alternated between blaring operatic nationalistic ballads and tunes by, as NM put it, “The Spicy Girls”, our merry band of public health pranksters rolled along through mountains and valleys.

I can’t believe that someone is paying me to do this, I thought. I can’t believe that I managed to con someone into giving me this job. How lucky am I?

***

We pulled up to the Lancang CDC before dinner that evening, and suddenly my role was made clear to me, 5 minutes before we were to meet with the local CDC director. “Ok,” says NM to me, “you’re the big boss from Washington. You’re like our boss’s boss’s boss. And you don’t speak or understand Chinese. Just speak English and I’ll translate for you. Be serious and impressive.”

Let that sink in for a minute, bearing in mind that I was wearing a slightly stained t-shirt and wrinkled pants. Also, if you are reading this blog it means you’ve met me, so you know that I don’t look old enough to be anyone’s boss.

Of course the CDC Director had not been informed that I would be there, and when he found out who I was he is falling all over himself to impress me. (This is all relative, by the way – it does not mean that he stopped picking his teeth or answering his cell phone in the middle of my sentences.) This guy turned out to be a good friend to our organization and an all around nice person – in addition to being a serious character, given to making grandiose proclamations like “I am the eighth most handsome man in Lancang!” Incidentally, he would not explain who numbers 1-7 were, so don’t ask. (This was also a lot funnier in Chinese, for those of you who speak the language: “我是澜沧第八帅!”)

He hustled us all over to a Wa nationality restaurant nearby and – surprise! – announced that, before dinner, we would be playing a Chinese version of Black Jack, with mysterious rules that kept changing. Also, it was the drinking game version of Black Jack, and the drink we would be consuming was the local corn liquor that was finished being made not half an hour earlier in the kitchen.

A little note about drinking and doing business in China: this is extremely common, and is both a show of hospitality and respect to your guests, as well as being something of a open challenge to your business partners. Women can often get out of these drinking games and endless hard liquor dinner toasts by demurring from the outset, but I figured Hey! I’m the big Washington boss. I will drink with this guy.

Now don’t go getting all upset – I managed to hold my own and didn’t even embarrass myself. (Which is more than I can say for the CDC director, who ended up complementing me loudly on my “excellent figure,” and poor NM who finished the night by throwing up.)

Lest you should think you can escape without a description of what we ate for dinner, I will just say that much of the Wa food we ate was extremely tasty – fish soups, a kind of steamed corn bread, an interesting potato porridge.

And then there were the water buffalo ankles. (Ankles? I checked with NM. Like, between the leg and the foot? She nodded.)

The CDC director conveyed the bowl of ankles to me grandly, informing me that I was to eat four of them, for some unknown reason. And yes, they were crunchy and cartilage-like. And ridiculously spicy. And all I could think of for the rest of the meal was that some poor water buffalo was staggering around a rice paddy on little stubs because I ATE ITS @#$%^&* ANKLES.

***

The next morning we went with the CDC director to visit some of the villages where we have doctors selling mosquito nets. NM informed me that I was to ask them some questions, as the interested foreign boss. “About anything in particular?” I asked. “Whatever, just make it up.”

After thinking about it for a moment I realized that since I know so little about public health in China, this was an opportunity for me to educate myself about the health problems of this area and what kinds of challenges the village doctors face – so it was actually fantastic to be the one getting to ask the questions.

They told me about why villagers don’t use mosquito nets, about their areas’ endemic diseases, about what the differences are between the health situation in China and just over the border in Burma. (That’s why I wasn’t allowed to take pictures, by the way; this place was about 75 miles from the Burmese border and if I had been seen taking pictures the police might have hauled me in for questioning.)

In case you’re curious, the general health picture is much worse on the other side of the border. Malaria prevalence, nutrition levels, life expectancy – there’s no comparison between the stable state of China and Burma, whose infrastructure remains in a shambles.

We visited one last village before leaving and spoke with some villagers whose situation seems to have improved markedly over the past 5 years due to increased grants from the government, but who are still very poor. They grow only corn, which they harvest once a year and the stores of which must last them all through the winter, spring and summer until the next harvest. If these people need to go to the doctor for something minor like the flu, it is covered 80% by a kind of insurance from the government and they must fund the remaining 20% themselves. If it’s something more serious, well – they’re SOL. Not enough money for anything else.

After lunch at a Lahu nationality restaurant (the first of two meals at which pig brains were served) it was back on the road to XSBN, by way of Menghai to meet with the CDC over dinner there. This was a friendly and brief meal, during a sudden tropical thunderstorm, where we toasted with a grain liquor of much lower alcohol content such that all of the women drank. Plus, we ate Dai nationality food and folks, let me tell you that as far as I am concerned, the Dai are the clear winners in the cuisine contest.

Perhaps it’s not fair – I am hopelessly in love with Southeast Asian flavors. Does your dish involve sticky rice? Pineapple? Coconut milk? Peanut sauce? Something steamed in a banana leaf? You have my heart. Dai food wins on all counts.

This meal was to-Dai-for. SOMEONE STOP ME.

This meal was to-Dai-for. (SOMEONE STOP ME.)

And how else to end an exhausting day back in XSBN but with a cold treat?

Pineapple chunks over ice

Pineapple chunks over ice

Good Gsught, everyone! More coming up in Part II of the story.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Words fail me…in Chinese

This was going to be a Friday Love List post, but it turned out to be a list of only one love: language fluency. For me – sadly and of course – this means only English. This is enough of a big deal in my life right now that it gets its own post. Love List of charming trivialities to follow.

***

Today I went out to lunch with an extended group of coworkers – that is, not only people who work in my office, but staff members who work in our drop in center for drug users. These other staff members – unlike my office buddies who are from all over China and can speak Mandarin – can all understand standard Mandarin, but they don’t like to speak it, feeling more comfortable in their own dialect (generally, the Kunming dialect).

I can barely understand anything that’s being said when people speak the Kunming dialect, although I now know a handful of words and little retorts that are specific to this dialect. (These amount to knowing how to say “to go shopping”, “potato”, “mushroom”, “really?”, the Kunming version of an interjection that has no translation in English, and a general term for addressing people you don’t know. Not very useful so far.)

It was halfway through lunch when one of my office buddies leaned over and asked me if I understood what was being discussed at the table. When I said that all I understood was that people were talking about a very fat person and the particular qualities of his fatness (I’ll save Chinese feelings on fatness for another time), she whispered: “Only some of them are speaking Kunming dialect – the others are speaking Honghe dialect.”

SIGH. Honghe is an area south of Kunming that has it’s own dialect – apparently intelligible to Kunming people, but a total mystery to me. It’s kind of discouraging. I was just starting to get the hang of having to speak Mandarin regularly, but I can see what a circumscribed little world it is if you want to have a richer life around here.

Even having to speak Mandarin all day is like being forced to walk on crutches – going out with English-speaking friends after work or on the weekends is like throwing off the crutches and going dancing. I relish complex conversations in English. I engage in verbal pugilism. I purposely select the more obscure term for something when I have the choice. I speak more quickly than normal and hack off the final consonants of words just because I know I can get away with it and still be understood. I’m punny, for god’s sake. Be glad you don’t have to have dinner with me these days.

Now, all of this is not to say that I have any big plans for learning another Chinese dialect; I think it’s probably still more important for me to get my Mandarin in order. How else am I meant to deal with the situation I faced yesterday at lunch when a colleague asked me why the Germans hated the Jews in WWII, and wanted to know if Jews consider themselves to be a shao shu minzu (the Mandarin term for the concept of Chinese ethnic minorities)? I will admit that it was difficult to get through this in Mandarin or rather, that I got through it giving a much less complex answer than I am capable of in English. My curious colleague seemed satisfied with my response, but I was left feeling like my explanation had been so simplistic as to be almost meaningless.

So. English fluency: I love you. You are my constant and faithful companion.

And what else is there to say really, but:

“The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-
ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur-
nuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later
on life down through all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the
offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan,
erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends
an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes:
and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park
where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since dev-
linsfirst loved livvy.”

“The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-
ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur-
nuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later
on life down through all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the
offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan,
erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends
an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes:
and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park
where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since dev-
linsfirst loved livvy.”

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized