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.

pb-120308-sleep-da-1.photoblog900

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.

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