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Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

That's China 

I went to the desk at the youth hostel last week to see about staying a few more nights because I didn't have a train ticket yet. They told me they were booked up, so I went to the Yunnan Normal University to see if they had a Foreign Experts Building. Fortunately, they did. I have stayed at the Foreign Experts Building in at Northwest Normal University several times, and found it to be very accommodating. This one is a little more old-fashioned. A few days ago, the hotel maid was very animated and talking really fast. She seemed to be upset about something, so I asked her to come to my room and show me. She showed me a stain on the cover sheet (In China, they use a bottom sheet and then a cover slip for the quilt). I didn't think it was that big a deal, but I had not noticed it before. If I had, I would have just taken a damp cloth and rubbed it out, so that is what I started to do. But the hotel maid would have none of it. She ripped the cover sheet off, handed me a bar of soap, and ordered me to go to the sink and wash it "properly." Of course, I dutifully obeyed. I should be more careful next time.

Interesting story. I think many Americans would be inclined to shrug their shoulders and say, "That's China." True, but also not true. It's true because it actually happened. But it's not true because that's only one part of China. I'll tell you another story to illustrate what I mean. I have stayed at the Foreign Experts Building on the campus of Northwest Normal University in Lanzhou several times. One time I was coming into Lanzhou, so I called Holly at the Foreign Experts Building and told her I would be coming. She welcomed me. When I got there, the place was packed to the gills. There was some kind of conference or something, and there was absolutely no room. Holly told me not to worry. She was very busy (of course), but she left someone else in charge of the place and insisted on walking me over to the International Students' dormitory where she had arranged for me to have a room. She told me to come the next day and they would have a place for me. That was a pretty important favor, because I didn't have anywhere else to stay. Kunming has lots of youth hostels, but Lanzhou doesn't have any.

You see, the first story is true--I didn't make it up. That's China. But the second story is also true, and that's also China. And I have had many more experiences like the second story than like the first. Many more. A couple days ago, I was at a bus stop trying to figure out which bus to take. I was frustrated, because in Beijing they have an arrow showing which way the bus is going, so you can easily see whether you are going the right direction, or if you need to cross the street and take a bus in the other direction. In Kunming, no arrows. There was a young lady standing there, and I asked her if she knew which way I should be going to get to the stop I was headed for. She asked me for my ultimate destination and then told me that there was no bus going there from this stop. She insisted on walking me to another bus stop where I could get a connection. She showed me a short-cut along the railroad tracks for about 150 meters. She walked boldly down the middle of the tracks, stepping gingerly from one tie to the next and I walked along the side. As we were walking, she continued to lecture me about how the bus system worked. When we got to the bus stop, she explained how the sign indicates which direction the bus is going, using characters instead of an arrow. It was all very simple, and as soon as she pointed out the characters to me (开往), I saw it, but I would not have noticed it without her help. A bus stopped. As soon as the door opened, she stepped forward abruptly and gave me a brief lecture on the ticketing system. She explained how to tell what the fair was (they have regular busses and air conditioned busses) and the different ways of paying, and she made the driver wait until she was through with her lesson. When she had assured herself that I was situated, she told me she had to go and she left. Just like that. That's unusual? No, that's China. I have had so many experiences like this in the years I have been traveling in China.

There's another thing about a blog post like this that can be very misleading. This blog is written in English, so I have related these conversations as if they took place in English. In fact, none of them did. None of the encounters I have told you about would have been possible if I had not taken the trouble to learn a little Putonghua. I don't know...the last young lady who showed me the bus system looked to be in her twenties--it's possible she spoke a little English. I didn't ask her, because I did not want to give any idea that English language proficiency was a prerequisite for being able to help me. That would have been self-defeating. As a general rule, if young people feel comfortable with English, they will answer you in English even if you start the conversation in Chinese. She did not, so it's a pretty safe bet she perhaps did not feel comfortable with English, although most young people have better language ability than they give themselves credit for. But basically, if you want to travel by yourself in Western China, you need to learn Chinese. I was lucky, because when I first came to Beijing I lived very near Wudaokou, which has many small language schools for studying Mandarin. There are expensive ones, but also cheap ones. It was 12 kuai an hour when I signed up for two hours a day during the first year I was in China. In 2009-2010 I did it again, and the price had gone up to 30 kuai for an hour-and-a-half. That's cheap. That's China. I don't take classes anymore, because I'm too busy and I don't live near the language schools now. But I developed a twenty-minute listening and reading exercise that I go through every day. I also have some other study projects--chiefly the one I set up with friends from church to study the Japanese and Chinese Bibles. I try to work away at that a few nights a week. But I do the listening exercises every day. The reason I am so picky about listening is because even if your grasp of a given language is not strong, it's amazing what you can get by with if you basically understand what people are saying to you. And speaking naturally follows listening. Young people in China are very self-conscious about their speaking ability. They always tell me that they can read and understand better than they can speak. So what often happens is that they neglect listening and focus on speaking. They want to get their speaking level up to their listening level. Big mistake. Your listening ability will always be greater than your speaking ability. The most affective approach is to forget about speaking and focus on listening. If you get your listening comprehension up, your speaking ability will be right behind. Young people always want to focus on speaking. That may be a good short-term approach, but it is not a good long-term approach.

But I digress. I got off on that language tangent because language is the chief reason some foreigners have a negative view of China. Foreigners who never learn Chinese and spend all their time in Beijing do avoid some unpleasant experiences. But they also miss out on a lot of extraordinary human kindness such as I have received from ordinary people all over this country. That's China.

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