A Few Moments: The Agony of Chinese Meetings

“The most common lie a leader tells is: ‘I will only speak for a few moments.’”

Mandarin Chinese is utterly overcrowded with proverbs, aphorisms, archaic idioms, and sneaky turns of phrase that, when said in the right tone, can amount to verbal warfare and/or illuminating truth. Because of the terse nature of Chinese speech, such clipped expressions can be packed with endless degrees of meaning, be it contextual, historical, and/or linguistic. As a bright-eyed foreigner learning this mysterious dialect of ups and downs and side to sides, one gradually begins to discover the perfect instances in which to insert these seemingly pithy phrases. You also notice them pop up in others’ speech. Some of these instances, I will never experience. For example, the ones involving filial deference would likely be lost on my parents, as they speak approximately zero words of Chinese and as I am not filially deferent, at least not by rigorous Chinese standards. But, the phrase I mentioned above—which is less an idiom and more a universally accepted truth—is one that I have an opportunity to lay down almost every single day of my Chinese life.

I hurried up to the second floor of the teaching building. It was to be the first meeting of the new school year. I had only arrived in Sanzhuang the day before. Our twenty or so teachers crowded around old couches, slightly tinged with a pleasantly nostalgic mothballian odor. We were vigilantly watched over by the likes of Marx, Engels, and Mao, among other esteemed comrades. I would get to know them very well. The time was 8:55. I was five minutes early. I thought it strange that our meeting would be so late. After all school started at 7 am. The roosters would be crowing by 6:30. My fears were assuaged when my principal, Mr. Yang assured us that he would “only speak for a few moments.”

IMG_0295Sanzhuang Elementary Meeting Room

During the course of the next two hours, Principal Yang delivered a monologue of epic length and rather un-epic scope. The other teachers fidgeted in agony and I drew three separate pictures of Principal Yang talking. In the first, the sun was up, in the second, the sun was down, and in the third, the sun was up again. When the oration finally came to a grinding halt—I assume this happened only when Principal Yang ran out of things to talk about—the room felt like a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Everyone looked around feverishly, like mice cautiously peeking their heads out from their holes to ensure that there wasn’t going to be another round of verbal assault. Finally, a teacher named Mr. Shi—a 60-something guy with a penchant for wearing a military surplus jacket five sizes too large—stood abruptly and walked out.

I caught up with Mr. Shi outside. He looked like he was searching for something to kick indiscriminately. Fortunately, the children were all asleep in their beds, rendering them, essentially unkickable.

“Mr. Shi, can you tell me the important points from the meeting, I didn’t understand a lot of it?” I ventured. At that point I was still acclimating to the heavily accented dialect of this part of Yunnan.

“You didn’t understand? Good for you.”

I didn’t understand.

“It’s better that way,” he said. “I also wish I didn’t understand.”

Unfortunately for Mr. Shi, since he had lived in Sanzhuang his entire life, he both spoke and understood the local dialect. He never did tell me the important points of the meeting.

I figured it would be a one-time deal. It was the first meeting after all, surely a great deal of administrative bureaucratic hullabaloo had to be addressed. I was right, partly. Two hours was the high-water mark. However, rarely did a Sunday night meeting ever fail to eclipse one-hour. In any event, the thing that drives these simple meetings to such lengthy degrees is never administrative bureaucratic hullaballoo. It’s rhetoric. Principal Yang approaches every Sunday night as a football coach whose team has just entered the locker room down 21-0 in the Super Bowl. The gameplan is out the window. Only invigorating, inspiratory bombast can save his squad from defeat. However, instead of hopes and dreams of millions of fans, Principal Yang’s rousing rhetoric is generally directed at a handful of topics, including but not limited to: Maintaining the cleanliness and order of the cabinets where students keep their bowls and chopsticks, ensuring that all teachers sign out before departing school on Fridays, and re-establishing that it is indisputably dangerous for students to skip over a step when walking down stairs.


For example, “It has recently come to my attention that the condition of the cupboards in the cafeteria has begun to deteriorate. This is gravely disheartening. Gravely. It is unacceptable! It is depravity! Every day that goes by in which the cupboards are not perfectly clean is a black spot on the history of Sanzhuang Elementary School! Have some dignity! For God sakes, have some dignity! Now, I will read this 15 minute long form letter regarding the importance—no, the obligation—of order in the cafeteria cupboards graciously provided by the Yunnan People’s Committee on Hygiene and Nutrition.”

He reads the letter. I draw a picture of Mao in my notebook. Mr. Shi sinks into his jacket, where he is safe, and where he does not understand but is understood. The math teacher to my left begins doing that thing where he puts his thumb and index finger together and pretends to squash people’s heads. The Chinese teacher to my right slides off the couch and spontaneously combusts. No one notices. Principal Yang presses on.

IMG_0302“Red Mao” by Taylor Loeb

“And that, that is why we must attack the obscenity of cafeteria cupboard disorder, and we must attack it together, swiftly, and without tolerance.”

It’s like that every time, and now unfortunately, I understand. But, it’s not just Principal Yang. It’s a common affliction of leaders, as I’ve found. Provide a guy or gal that has a title with a microphone and an audience, and you are in for it. You are in for misplaced inspiration. I do not claim to understand where this burning desire for loquaciousness originates. It might be vanity. Maybe it’s a widespread misinterpretation of the term “a few moments.” It might be a legitimate conviction that no matter constraints of time or place, when you speak, you must speak like William Wallace on the fields of Falkirk. Or maybe signing out on the weekend is a matter of life, death, and dignity. Or maybe, the students, employees, and Mr. Shis of yesteryear—the leaders of today—lost their mind a long time ago listening to the verbose movers and shakers of the past—the guys on the wall. And, they’ve slowly devolved into a farcical state of mind in which up is down, a few moments means a few hours, and the meticulous arrangement of cabinets that hold the bowls and chopsticks of small children is an uncompromisable prerequisite to an operational, civilized society.


Snorey Night: A Bumpy Evening on a Chinese Sleeper Train

I knew immediately he was going to be a problem.


            He was a man of ample proportions. He was balding. He wore glasses. He was bumbling and stumbling, a known prerequisite to rumbling. And, most notably, he had sinus issues. Every two minutes he’d grab the garbage can and liberate his nasal cavities of swaths of swath. It continued like that for a while. I surreptitiously eyed him with preemptive disdain. Bastard. I couldn’t let him win. I pulled my sleep mask over my eyes and pleaded, begged my subconscious to overtake me. But I lost. I was soon engulfed in a cacophony of grunts, groans, and guffaws.


            When you travel on the cheap you expose yourself to people you don’t know. For the purpose of saving cash, you sacrifice your privacy. You share. Simple enough. You stay in dorm beds in lieu of private rooms. You fly coach in lieu of spending a month’s salary on a plane ticket. You take communal sleeper trains instead of any other fathomable form of transportation. In regards to these money-saving practices everyone has their reasons for wanting to escape them. Some people fear theft. Some people fear insufficient legroom. Some people fear conversation. As for me, I solve those problems by locking stuff up, blatantly lying that I’m willing to help in the event of an emergency, and putting my headphones in and pretending that I’m unavailable for small talk. I could even care less about bathrooms. In regards to that, I guess if you read this blog you understand my learned ambivalence. Nah. There’s only one thing.


            When I lived in Shanghai in 2010 I had this roommate. He was 31 years old, from Lima, Peru, a great guy, and a chronic sufferer of obstructive sleep apnea. However, it isn’t really the snorer that suffers, but those lucky enough to be in his vicinity. Note: After doing some research, I discovered that snorers actually do suffer quite a bit. But, that’s of no importance here. If he fell asleep before me—he usually did—I was in for misery. I spent many nights plotting the most inconspicuous ways to asphyxiate him. See, you lose your mind when there’s a snorer afoot. We were good buddies. We played basketball together. We amicably used the same bathroom. We liked each other’s statuses. But, at night, all I could think about was putting him out of my misery.


            I survived that year, and, somehow, so did my roommate. Since then I haven’t cohabitated for an extended period of time. But, whenever I stay in hostels, dorms, or sleeper trains, I have dark, dark flashbacks of 2010, year of the Tiger, year of the obstructive sleep apnea. On my most recent trip through India and Southeast Asia, I had the pleasure of mentally revisiting my tiny Shanghai apartment on numerous occasions, none more harrowing than my final ride back to Heqing.


            I arrived at the Kunming train station six hours early. I spent the afternoon drinking bubble tea and getting stared at. It was good to be back in Mainland China. My train left Kunming at 9:50 and figured to arrive in Heqing around 6:30. If things went according to plan, I could have 8 hours of relatively comfortable sleep. The sleeper train is an underappreciated tool of the budget traveller. It’s transportation and lodging in one. I get access to a bed and incredibly inefficient transportation for 8 hours for about twenty bucks US.


            As I explained above, I knew I was screwed the moment I saw him. He was the quintessential snorer. One look at him, and you could more or less hear it, emanating silently. He took the bottom bunk across from me. There are six bunks in each “compartment”—three columns and two rows—two rows of three beds. None of the upper bunks filled up. The train was relatively desolate. I looked at the man I had only just met, shook my head with (slightly) inexplicable hatred and disgust usually reserved for the moments after sniffing a fresh bottle of baijiu or a Wayne LaPierre quotable, and settled in and tried to coax myself to sleep. The problem is, of course, when you want to sleep it’s an exercise in futility, especially for me. It’s a wicked game. I gave myself a few of the silent, “sleep-immediately-you-idiot pep talks.”


            Alas, I was on the brink of slumber when it began. I angrily looked to my right, but my neighbor was still struggling with the removal of his socks. However, the rumble was unmistakable. If not him, then who? I soon put together that it was coming from the adjacent compartment—the one that was separated from mine by a paper-thin partition. I took the offensive. I would be fighting a war on two fronts this evening. I began banging the partition wildly. My neighbor looked up from his socks, part confused, part petrified. His look said, “This white person is unstable.” I gave up and went to the bathroom. The train bathroom, of course, is a squat toilet. I’d like to note here that a squat toilet in motion is one of humanity’s most indefensibly careless creations. Its use requires a balance rarely seen outside of the Olympics or the circus. I truly believe that if you can execute perfect use of a moving squat toilet, the sky is the limit as far as your personal capabilities. As for me, I just brace myself against the wall and hope for the best. On the way back I glanced at the guy in the compartment next to me. He was a spitting image of my neighbor—the friendly seeming socks guy that I had come to hate. He slept on his back and his shirt was two sizes to small. His belly button was very much on display. An outie, as it were.


            I returned to my compartment to find my neighbor “sound” asleep. As I crawled back into bed, I was surrounded by an orchestra of “rugghuhgs” and “guhguhghughus” and “mememememes.” I remembered my experiences from 2010. The most valuable piece of advice I can give: You cannot stop a snorer; you can only hope to contain him. You’ve got to disrupt his sleep enough that he comes to for a moment, only to ideally change his breathing pattern, or whatever it is that creates that sound. You can’t punch or slap him in the face, though. Then he’ll really wake up, and you’ll have to fight him. And anyways, it’s not nice to disturb someone’s sleep, now is it?


            So, for the guy in the adjacent compartment, I continued banging on the partition. As for my neighbor, unfortunately he was just out of reach, so I could not flick or poke him—as I’m known to do when encountering complete strangers on empty train cars. As such, I devised a genius plan. I had a plastic water bottle. At first I figured I could just pour it on his head. You know, kind of like a milder waterboarding type of deal. But, I took some deep breaths—not as deep as his, of course—and thought better of it. Instead, I twisted and crinkled it in his face over and over again. Everyone knows that corrugated sound it makes. It was a perfect foil to his roil. Each time he woke up, momentarily adjusted his breathing, and I industriously returned my attempts at sleep. When he inevitably began again, I’d abandon sleep and feverishly crumple the water bottle in his face. He’d wake up and we’d do it all over again. A few times, I bopped him with the bottle straight up—yes, lightly. So, I’m banging on the wall with my left hand and brandishing my water bottle in my right. I had no choice, really. This continued with varying levels of enthusiasm for nearly an hour.


           After a while I got tired, more tired than I was before. I gave up on the adjacent compartment guy. After one particularly egregious crinkle, I momentarily sedated my neighbor. I rushed to sleep, which, this time, actually met me. I was woken up by the train attendant a few hours later.


            I woke up, grabbed my bags, and gave my neighbor a smile and a thumbs up (I do that now). He returned the smile and, awkwardly, the thumbs up. Nice guy, my neighbor. I’m happy I didn’t pour that bottle of water on his head.