Old People and Young People

I’m sitting casually on the steps to the speaking platform/flagpole at Sanzhuang. It’s a clear, bright blue day as always. On the step above me is Zhang Jin Wei, a sixth grader who I taught as a fifth grader. Zhang Jin Wei’s body’s too big for him, but he’s too young for his age. He has a lego-head-shaped-head—and a haircut that almost makes you think he might be balding, even though you know it’s biologically out of the question. He’s profoundly awkward—a characteristic alive and well in each and every sixth grader, past, present, and future. He talks in spurts, his speech moving not in step with neural synapses, but the rapid thump of his circulatory system. In short, he’s a kid. But, Zhang Jin Wei is also a profoundly smart kid. In a class dominated by intelligent and focused girls, he’s the only boy that even cracks the top ten.

He seems to search for an out of our conversation before it even begins.

“Zhang Jin Wei, did you have any problems with your research?” I’m asking about our CORE project. It’s his third year with the project.

For anyone who might not know, CORE is an uncertain acronym, but the generally accepted iteration is Community, Outreach, Rediscovery and Engagement. It’s a project started five years ago by Teach for China fellows in the Heqing region. The goal is to connect kids with their homes in new ways and try to lead them toward thinking about how to improve their villages without sacrificing the things they love about their villages. Over the years, we’ve raised hundreds of thousands of RMB and given winning teams a chance to go to cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu. This year, the theme is Old and New. Students were asked to go into their towns and compare old and new methods of doing things and think about what the development has meant. For example, a washboard vs. a washing machine or traditional Chinese medicine vs. modern “Western” medicine.

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Zhang Jin Wei dances around my question.

“Well, there was, I mean, there was one, there was one time we couldn’t get information.”

“That’s normal. What happened? Maybe I can give you some resources.”

“Well it was during the interview. We had to interview people, right?”

“Yeah, you couldn’t find anyone? You can always find someone. They don’t have to be an expert.”

“No, not like that. We, we, found a guy. This old guy in the village who knew about Chinese medicine.”

“That’s a good one!”

“Well, not really.” He struggles through a laugh. “We went to his house, you know, on Sunday afternoon. And we knocked on the door and opened the gate. ‘What is it? Who are you?’ he said. And we told him that, you know, we were there to interview him like we planned the other day. He said OK, he remembered. He said that he just wanted to finish watching a history soap opera and he would come speak with us. He said he’d be done 马上 (ma shang).”

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马上 (ma shang) is the most deceptively deployed word in Heqing, and I’m led to imagine other parts of China, too. The word literally means “On a horse’s back.” It apparently originates from the Warring States Periods of Ancient China. A messenger approached one kingdom’s general with news that one of its strongholds was under attack. The general, who had been doing training exercises with his troops, replied 马上 (ma shang), implying that he and his men would not leave their horses’ backs, but proceed immediately to battle. Or something like that. 马上 (ma shang), of course, implies immediacy. ‘I’m on the horse. Let’s do this thing.’ But, it’s usually used like this: ‘Sure, I’m on a horse, but that doesn’t mean I’m going anywhere. I’m just going to hang out on the horse for a little while.’ The most flagrant abusers of 马上(ma shang), are, of course, 面包车 (mian bao che) drivers. These guys drive van cabs. 马上(ma shang) is their natural, knee-jerk reaction to the question, “When are we leaving?” or “Are we there yet?” or “Where are we going?”

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Zhang Jin Wei continues, “Well. We waited like 30 minutes at his door and we went in to check if his show had finished.”

“Were you nervous?”

“A little, yeah. But, we waited 30 minutes. I thought he was probably sleeping. He wasn’t sleeping. He was smoking a cigarette and watching the news. We asked if we could do the interview. He said 马上 (ma shang). He just wanted to finish watching the news and he would come find us. He told us to go outside. Then, like 15 minutes later we checked again—because he didn’t come out. This time he wasn’t even watching the news! He was watching a show about 象棋 (xiang chee—‘chess’)! And Zhang Run Jing asked him if he could do the interview and he said maybe now is not a good time. He was going to go take a nap and we should go away because he had to take a nap.”

George RR Martin

Naptime, bitches. 

“Wow! That’s difficult. Doesn’t sound like fun. What did you do?”

“Well. We decided that there are three places to get information: Old people, books, and computers. And Zhang Run Jing, he has a computer. So, we just looked up the answers online. We found them pretty 马上 (ma shang).”

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Hesitate at the Crossroads

IMG_0181Sanzhuang Village

A Chinese proverb goes like this: 彷徨歧途 (panghuang qitu), “Hesitate at the Crossroads.” It’s not a command or an instruction. It’s just a thing someone might do.

I’ve said this before: I live at-on-in a crossroad. The thing about these so-called crossroads though, in the big social, future sense, is that they don’t really exist. Why? Because, if you are at them you have come from somewhere else, and likely been consistently faced with them—various intersections, again and again and again. After a while you stop noticing. There is no singular crossroad, as we like to imagine it, just an endless series inevitably bypassed again and again and again. The crossroad I currently live at is the evaporating past and its foregone future. But, I reiterate: the crossroad has become a useless metaphor. It’s been replaced by a highway—the Highway of Time.

The funny thing about time, though, as I’ve come to find, is that it isn’t what we think it is. It’s got very little to do with ticks & tocks, waxes & wanes, and wrinkles & gravity. We can make it go. And this is our paradoxical obsession: to make time go as fast and as slow as we possibly can. To tame it. We want everything immediately, yet we want our time to move as slowly as possible—in short, to last.

Here—where I am right now—in this little, rapidly transforming county in the middle of this rapidly transforming country, at this supposed developmental crossroads, I see the desire to outwit, jump over, redefine, and move ahead of time on hyper-drive. It’s moving so fast, that you can literally see it. You can literally see the passage of time. What does it look like: wheelbarrows, shovels, straw hats, dust, rocks, cardboard boxes, burning trash, assembly lines, cranes. You can hear it too, of course. Slow time sounds like crickets under the moon, a plodding, ticking hand. But, time, when it moves this fast, is deafening: Cracks and hammers, shouts and drills, horns, turbines, whirrs. The louder, the faster. It does not plod away like the persistently predictable second hand. It doesn’t tick. It roars.

But, it didn’t always.

Why did we invent time? I suppose to challenge ourselves. Time is a measure of our own abilities. We are so obviously, viscerally constrained by it, that the only thing we can do is play against it. This has, I guess, emerged as the defining goal of people: to—realizing that we can’t stop time—go faster than it.

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And this, of course, is where the whirring turbines and crunching factories come in. Or in my life—the wheelbarrows full of rocks and the endless young men setting bricks on concrete, concrete on bricks, bricks on concrete. Because, some time ago, it became very clear that the only thing standing between the present of—shall we say, China, but really of anywhere—and the future, was, is time. Because, if time hadn’t existed—if we didn’t need to pass by noon to get from morning to midnight—the future, of course, would already be here. No, we’ve got to bring the future to us. Too bad. Funny, how that goes.

So, what you get is the largest, dustiest, loudest, fastest passage of time in human history. How do you measure time? It turns out not with clocks. You put together all of the time-busting methods and you decide how good they are, how good they have been, how good they will be: 0%, 2%, 5%, 10%, 15%, 20%!!!, 14%, 12%, 9%, 6%… and that’s how time moves. The faster we move, the better. Our success, our worth, our everything, judged on speed.

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It’s important, vital, crucial to make it go Fast, because once it’s gone, you can’t get it back. Wait what? That’s not right! It’s the other way around! We should make it go slow, precisely because we can’t get it back. Sorry, no time to think about time.

And what about the hands that turn the clock? Millions, billions! of hands smashing and crushing and huffing, sliding, tumbling across the numbers as they fall and rise and fall again? They are there, speeding on the Highway of Time, incapable of stopping at, now utterly oblivious to, the crossroads. And they—the crossroads, the moments of hesitation—don’t exist, like the space between line and asymptote; they have become so insignificant that their value can only be zero.

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But the faster we move, the worse, because it gets harder and harder and harder to go faster, faster, Faster. But we can’t help ourselves; the desire to beat time becomes so powerful. We have forgotten whatever the goal is, and whatever it was has been replaced by that desire, to continue to set the pace ahead.

But.

A tragic—or perhaps encouraging—fact emerges. We can’t ever beat it. We can only beat it for a while. Because, it never ends. It renews itself over and over. The future, by its very nature, will never arrive. And we’ve tricked ourselves into believing we could make time tick to our tock.

And only by realizing it, only by realizing time’s steadfast power, can we make it powerless. Only by hesitating at the crossroads, can we even make the crossroads exist. Otherwise, we’re just racing to lose.

No. Wait. Look left, right, look back. Then go forward, if you please.

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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.

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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.

Friday Night

I’m brought back to a simple fact time and again. All the world over, everyone does the same things. We eat, we drink, we relax, we go to the bathroom. We have to do these things. It’s part of the human experience. It’s part of being alive. Whether we’re in China, Brazil, Iowa, Mozambique, we’ve got to do them. We just do them a little differently.

 

            “Let’s go, let’s go Mr. Luo. Time to eat.”

 

            I’m shooting hoops, when Mrs. Wang, a Sanzhuang local teacher, calls me to go to dinner.

 

            “Can I go like this?” I’m wearing a tank top and shorts.

            “Mmm… yes.” Unconvincing.

            “Give me two minutes.”       

            “I’ll be at the gate.”

 

            I run back to my room and throw on a black polo. I don’t change my shorts, because I play by my own rules.

 

            Mrs. Wang and I hop into the cab of a Yunnan style pickup. Half the size, slower, and louder than your average Ford F-150. We drive for a few minutes and come to an abrupt stop at a dusty side road. Our driver hangs a sharp left and winds us up the path. He takes another left and we arrive at a giant compound. At initial glance it feels a lot like Carcosa, from True Detective: A massive complex in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by low-lying shrubbery and dust. We hop out of the pickup. There’s a pen of irritable goats to my right. A bunch of guys I recognize are playing Mahjong at a table to my left.

 

            The Yunnanese Tony Soprano incarnate, calls to me: “Hitler, come on, let’s have a drink.”

 

            My Chinese name, 泰勒, Taile, happens to share the same final character as 希特勒, Hitler. As such, the Yunnanese Tony Soprano relentlessly calls me ‘Hitler.’ To explain to him why that is in no way chill, would be a waste of my time and effort, so I play along. I tell him I’ll be right back. I want to scope out this new place. I look into the first room; a bunch of people playing Mahjong. The second room; a few kids watching TV. I walk down a dirt path, take a left, and wind up in the kitchen. More people drinking and playing Mahjong. I walk back toward the front, where Tony and the regulars have quit their game.

 

            “Hitler, come on! Let’s do one.” Tony hands me the red cap to a bottle of baijiu. It’s full. I slurp it down. We sit. There are about 6 or 7 guys at the table. Among them are my principal, Mr. Yang, the Yunnanese Tony Soprano, the current and former Sanzhuang security guards, the local doctor, and one other guy that’s always there, but as far as I’m concerned has no name. We’re sitting outside, in the courtyard. I’m the youngest at the table by a solid ten years. I’m also the only one without a kid or a wife.

 

            Not a minute goes by before the dishes arrive. On the menu this evening:

 

            Onions, sliced thin, soaked in lime and pepper flakes. It tastes like ceviche. It tastes like something you’d put on a taco. It’s a rare flavor out here, and is beyond pleasantly surprising.

 

            Thin, flaky, giant sugary cheese chips laid on top of each other. Cheese is hard to come by in China, but these are the real deal.

 

            Jumbo beans doused in salty oil.

 

            Liangfen, grass jelly served cold, dipped in heavy soy sauce for optimal enjoyment.

 

            Fish. Tiny whole fish, maybe 4 inches long drenched in garlicky soy sauce. I never eat these because I’m lazy. The effort required to extract meat from between the myriad bones is too much for me to handle. I also don’t like eating things that still have eyes.

 

            Finally, the piece de resistance. Between the dishes, at the center of the table, is a bowl of pork soup. Big, fat bones and meat that gracefully slides off of them.

 

            Rice. Of course.

 

            It bears repeating. Almost all of this food is from the backyard. No preservatives, no GMOs, no nothing. It’s kind of like Whole Foods, except without a stock ticker.

 

            For a few minutes, no one speaks. We devour. Then, the former security guard calls us to attention.

 

            “Drink. Drink to good fortune.”

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            Everyone’s got a paper cup. He pours each of us a half glass of baiju. Everyone clinks and takes a sip. That familiar burn. All the way down to the pit of my stomach. It tastes like Everclear, but with half the effectiveness.

 

            The current security guard’s brother is sitting across from me. He’s wearing a camouflage shirt that says “U.S. Army” above the pocket. He looks at me.

 

            “Hey, in America can the government decide what age you can get married?”

            “I believe it’s 16 with parental consent, 18 without.”

            “Not bad. You know, it’s 22 for men in China. Twenty for women.” (I do not know if this is true).

            “That late, huh?”

            “Yes. Some colleges specifically forbid their students from getting married, as well.”

            “I guess a wife and kids could be a pretty big nuisance to studying, eh?”

            “You said it.”

 

            The former security guard puts his arm around the guy next to him and pinches his cheek.

 

            “In America, the two of us, heh, we could get married. I saw that on the news.”

            “You said it.”

            “But, you see. He’s too much trouble. It wouldn’t be a healthy marriage. He’s a drunk, you know. I’d have to throw him out.”

            “Yeah well, if you married him, you’ve got to deal with the consequences.”

            “DRINK!”

 

            Another round of shots. What happens if you erode the walls of your esophagus? Fuck it, I’ll worry about that when the time comes.

 

            It’s become clear to me that we like to view cultures and countries in the light of difference. “In America, you can get married at 18?” “In America, two dudes can get married?” “In China, do you really shit in a hole?” I play into that too. Everything I write on here is about how different my Chinese life is from my American life.

 

            It makes sense. Differences are much more intriguing than similarities, right? If everyone looked the same, ate the same food, shit in the same type of bathroom, life would be unbearably boring. But, really, strip away one or two layers of difference, and we’re all doing the same stuff.

 

            For the last five years of my life, I had a Friday ritual. I went to The Boot at 6:00 pm, sat outside with my friends, drank hard liquor, and told ridiculous stories. Now, on Friday night, I sit outside with my friends, drink hard liquor, and tell ridiculous stories. My friends are a little older, the liquor is a little harder, and the stories are told in a different language. The scene, though, is thoroughly similar.

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            That’s what culture is, really; slight tweaks of the human experience grounded in geography. We drink baijiu. We drink Pinot Grigio. We still drink. We execute a criminal by stoning. We execute a criminal by lethal injection. We still execute a criminal. We say say ‘Wo ai ni.’ We say ‘I love you.’ We still have affection. We live there. We live here. We still live. We just live a little bit differently.

What do you Want to be when you Grow Up?

          Mike is small. He’s 13, but could just as well be 8. He has a cartoonish look about him, the kind that says he will always look like a 2nd grader, no matter how old he is. He’s one of the more popular kids in my 6-2 class. He likes to dance while I lecture. I was messing around on my computer, and Mike came over, inquisitively. He sat across from me and we started chatting. Simple things, “How is school lately?” “What’s the past tense for go?” “What’s your favorite Justin Bieber song?” I like talking to kids, because there is no conversational ebb and flow. There isn’t going to be one topic that we talk about for ten minutes. I’m just going to rapid fire random inquiries at them that I think will yield amusing answers. Kids ask questions, but kids generally, at 13 years of age do not have the willingness to lead a conversation with an “adult,” especially if they are alone.

            I like to ask the questions that they would ask me. Louis CK has this bit where he complains that his five-year-old daughter has never said anything important in her life. Kids like to ask fluffy things: “Do you have a girlfriend?” “What your favorite animal?” “Do you like hamburgers?” I can’t really remember being a kid, not much of it at least. I don’t recall my impetus for asking those types of things. Was it completely unmotivated? Was I just working into my linguistic capacity, honing my skills? Was I calculatingly judging those who said their favorite animal was “dog” or those who didn’t quite prefer hamburgers? Did I archive the information? “Ah yes, the kid down the street is crazy about the color blue and the girl next door likes chicken nuggets, I’ll certainly remember that next time we play house.” Frankly, it’s nice to not have to think about what I’m going to say. I could follow “What month is your favorite?” with “Do you like clouds?” and it would seem like a totally rational segue.

            So, when I hit a lull in conversation with Mike, I went for the surefire winner, the classic adult-kid conversation topic. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Ask any child this question, and you will never receive an “I don’t know,” in return. It’s funny, the types of questions older people respond with “not sure” to are the ones for which kids always have an answer. “Have you ever been in love?” “Yes!” “What’s your favorite color?” “Blue, duh! “Who’s your idol?” “Justin Bieber.” No pause, ever. Adults have to ponder these things, and if they don’t, I believe that means they’re young at heart.

            Adults like to ask kids what they want to do when they grow up for a few reasons. They want to give them advice. They want to tell them, no matter how absurd their answer—I want to be king of Uranus—to follow their dreams and never let anyone stand in their way. They think its good for kids to start thinking about this stuff at age 12.

            I ask this when there is a lull in conversation. So I said to Mike:

 

            “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

            “I want to raise animals and grow some plants.”

            “You don’t want to be a policem—“I stop myself.

            “I want to grow beautiful flowers in my courtyard. All kinds of flowers.”

            “That is… I think that is a wonderful idea, Mike. I like flowers too.”

 

            Mike is 13 years old, so he knows what jobs are. Not only that, but he’s a sharp kid, the kind you might expect “doctor” or (gulp) “lawyer” or even if he was a little adventurous “dancer” from. You might expect a five year old to say they want to plant flowers when they grow up. Children are conditioned to have answers for this question. In fact, adults (I do not oblige to be one) are conditioned to expect answers to this question. Most of my male students want to be in the army or drive a car. Most of my female students want to be doctors or singers. I wanted to be a policeman at age five, now the police are the last people I want to associate with, professionally or otherwise. These persuasions stem from the fact that we delineate what is “good” and “bad” work. Whenever a student is behaving poorly, a teacher may take them outside and have this type of exchange:

 

            “Why did you do such and such?”

            “I don’t know.”

            “You need to work harder. You laugh today, you cry tomorrow. You cry today, you laugh tomorrow.” Meaning that, you goof off today, you’ll pay in the long run.

            “Yes ma’am.”

            “Do you want to be like your parents, working with your hands all day?”

            “No, I don’t.”

 

            I am not arguing for an agrarian revolution. Further, I am not disagreeing with this type of treatment. Being a subsistence farmer is surely not fun. It’s arduous, unpredictable, and obviously, not entirely profitable either. It’s generally not a chosen line of work. But, I would never argue against it either.

           

            Mike is 13. He’s a bright kid. No, he’s not the top of his class, but he’s personable and curious. By the time he’s 22 and ready to work, the opportunities in his hometown will be much greater than they are today. They will indubitably be much greater than they were when his parents were 22. His most likely line of work will still be farming, but it won’t be as likely as it is now. Mike is 13. He’s bright. He didn’t say he wanted to raise animals and plant flowers because he truly thinks that is his realistic endpoint. Thirteen year olds are idealistic, from the top to the bottom of the class. They haven’t been compelled to decide their own fate yet. He said that because he is a happy kid. He doesn’t see his parents’ careers as a burden. He doesn’t see farming as “falling short.” And I don’t think he really cares if anyone else does.

 

            “What do you think?” He said.

            “I think you should do whatever you want. But, Mike, if you’re going to plant flowers when you grow up, I expect you to plant the best flowers you can.”

            “Why wouldn’t I?”

Shangrila

In May 1938, Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler sent a research expedition to the Tibetan Plateau. The members of the party were anthropologists, mostly German. In exchange for the resources to complete their fieldwork, the group leaders, among them critics of the regime, agreed to become SS officers. While the team, led by renowned zoologist Ernst Schafer, would carry out anthropological study, as a final kicker Himmler required that the crew search for a lost tribe of pureblood Aryans. Remember, the Nazis believed the Aryan race sprang from a pre-Buddhist Indo-Asian society. The inverted swastika, now synonymous with hate is an ancient Sanskrit symbol for goodness. The group returned abruptly in 1939—with Europe on the brink of all-out war—with some valuable new material, but to everyone’s great surprise failed to locate any pureblood Aryans.

           

            Much of this wayward Nazi theory derived from mystical accounts of a high Himalayan Utopia, an earthen paradise shielded from the rest of the world by soaring snow-capped peeks and, potentially, overprotective gods. One of the major components of said ideology is James Hilton’s mythologically-informed 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. Lost Horizon speaks of a place called “Shangri-La.” Shangri-La is a kind of original version of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s village of Macondo. It’s isolated and idyllic, has magical tendencies, and the inhabitants seem to live unearthly spans of life. It’s as close to heaven as you can get on god’s green earth. It’s position high above the horizon, deep within the clouds, adds to its aura of Nirvana. I went there a few days ago.

           

            Shangri-La is not real. Or, at least, it wasn’t real. It wasn’t real until 2001, to be exact. In that year, the Chinese town of Zhongdian (中甸), located in the northernmost county of Yunnan province and firmly within the Tibetan Plateau, opted to change it’s name to Shangri-La (香格里拉). The local government claims that Zhongdian is the setting for the (not real) Shangri-La in Hilton’s novel. They also claim, more rationally, that such a name change would be a boon to local tourism. They were right. Changing a Tibetan city’s name to Shangri-La is akin to a down-and-out university in the British countryside changing its name to Hogwarts. It’s probably not illegal, and if you can fool people into belief or at least curiosity, why not?

           

            Shangri-La (香格里拉) is a fairly large city near Yunnan’s border with Tibet and Sichuan. It has a KFC, which is, in my estimation, evidence that a Chinese city has arrived. The existence of KFC in Shangri-La also goes a long way in validating the government’s claims that their city is indeed an earthly paradise. Shangri-La doesn’t feel any different from your average mid-sized city in Yunnan. Lots of hole in the wall restaurants with “C” health ratings. The Chinese FDA rates hygiene on a scale of A, B, or C. A is represented by a grinning ear-to-ear yellow smiley face. B is a green “hmmmm…” face and C is a red, grumbling frown. I have never seen an A. Never. There are hustling tuk-tuk drivers. There’s a bunch of be-dreadlocked foreigners that look lost or in the process of being found (or probably just on drugs). There’s a “Next Station” bubble tea chain, the pre-KFC indicator of imminent arrival of a city in Yunnan.

           

            The current standout aspect of Shangri-La however, is not something the government, or James Hilton, planned. This January a worker, deep in the heart of the ancient city left a blow dryer on. Due to the fact that the ancient city is/was hundreds and hundreds of years old, things escalated quickly. Today, only a few blocks remain of the old town. Walking through Shangri-La’s old city is incredibly bizarre. It feels like ancient Rome, yet the destruction took place only a few months ago. And the cause of destruction was not violent Visigoths, but a hairdryer. Centuries of history reduced to complete rubble in days. A single steel spiral staircase rises up in the middle of a field of bricks and dust.

 

            On our first night in Shangri-La, three friends and I decided we best sample the local nightlife. We headed for the new town. I’d feel cheated if a place that purports itself to be paradise didn’t know how to get down. We first went to your run-of-the-mill Indian-Nepali-Tibetan-Chinese-Chilean fusion spot located down the road from our hostel. The proprietor, a Chilean guy named Ricky, served us the house specialty; yak meat empanadas. Tibetan-chic. As far as I could tell, Ricky, who’s lived in Shangri-La for three years, was the only ex-pat living in the city. After a delectable, eclect-able mix of yak meat empanadas, chicken tikka masala, French fries, and Shangri-La beer that made me feel like I was in Babu Batt’s Dream Café, we headed for the local scene.

           

            We bought some bottles of the local version of baijiu, qingkejiu (青稞酒), at a giant supermarket. This version was made with barley instead of wheat. It was, beyond my expectations of plausibility, even worse than our local Heqing interpretation. The brand we bought came in an inauspicious bottle that looked more like it belonged in the cleaning fluids aisle than anywhere near the “things people consume” aisle. The taste confirmed our suspicions.

           

            We settled on a tiny second floor bar/club/lounge. We climbed the rickety steps and sat down at a table next to the dance floor. The dance floor stood in the center of the place. About 10 tables and couches flanked the front and left side. The bar was on the right. The spot was so smoky I couldn’t open my eyes without crying, like I was trapped in a room full of onion choppers. I lit up a cigarette.

           

            The lights were bright. On the stage were two 20-something guys in traditional Tibetan dress singing folk songs. Some people sang along halfheartedly. Generally, people just walked across the stage to and from the bar without regard. About 15 minutes after we arrived, the music cut, the (presumably) Tibetan guys vacated, and intense thumping base started emanating from all corners of the club. The strobes hit “bad news for an epileptic, and incredibly annoying for anyone” level. The first song: a bassed-out bilingual version of “Happy Birthday,” sung by what sounded like a teenage Chinese girl. Boom Boom Boom. I looked around and realized the average age was probably 18 or 19. There were definitely some older people (my age, that is), but if you’re talking simple random sample, the crowd was probably on average post-’93. I felt like I was in an Abercrombie and Fitch: surrounded by darkness, loudness, suffocating stench, (this time smoke instead of Fierce cologne) and teenagers.     

            Chinese bars/clubs are weird. Weird in the sense that I’m used to American nightlife and Chinese bars/clubs aren’t like them. When travelling outside major urban centers, you are inevitably going to see some wacky shit.

           

            A few years ago, I went with some friends to Hangzhou, a short train ride from Shanghai. After some sightseeing we went to a club (glorified bar) downtown. Upon entrance we were rushed to a table and given a bunch of free drink cards. That kind of thing doesn’t happen in Yunnan. I won’t say it happened a lot in Shanghai, but I won’t say it didn’t happen a lot. We were three: an Italian girl, a Saudi guy, and myself.

           

            Anyways, you get free drinks, you get drunk. I was suitably inebriated by one or two a.m. when shit started to get out of hand. The bar started playing some hyper-paced, high-pitched English songs (sung by Chinese people of course). Happy Birthday was definitely among them. The strobe lights picked up. Five or six people dressed as giant animals appeared out of nowhere (a rabbit, a cow, a dog among others). They began dancing a meticulously choreographed program and pumping their fists/paws violently to the beat. Everyone in the crowd clapped along with unbridled passion. After a few moments they dispersed throughout the club, dancing their way between tables as the beat boom boomed and creeping the living shit out of no one except me. They ran back on stage and danced for another minute. When they finished, there was raucous applause. I wondered if I’d be allowed to go back to earth at that point. Immediately after they finished, the bar turned the lights on and everyone left. I took my thumb out of my mouth and opened my eyes.

           

            The bar in Shangri-La was not quite on this level of flat-out lunacy, but it was just different. You get used to a certain type of procedure. A club or bar looks like certain things. Dancing, for one (or at least what American college students like to believe is dancing). There wasn’t much of that going on. There was one guy who would come up behind people and hug them and wiggle around a little bit. He probably would have gotten bounced in the US, but everyone kind of just brushed him off as funny. But dancing, not really. It seemed like more of a place to hang out and chain smoke than an avenue for casual encounters. And that was okay.

           

            You get used to certain things. You get programmed. You see the weird in the different but not in the everyday. Last night, a bit further up the road from Shangri-La, we stayed in a mountainside hostel called “The Feeling of Youth.” Feeling of Youth lies many thousands of meters up in the air, bounded by whitecaps as far as the eye can see. It was cold. That high-altitude, thin cold that creeps under your jacket and goes directly to the bone. I had to use the bathroom. I walked downstairs. There were three options: Two squat toilets without doors and a pristine looking commode with a door that actually locked. I went for the commode, obviously. I sat down and my body went ice cold. I got up, opened the door, and went to the neighboring squat toilet. It felt right, even comfortable.

           

            Did I receive a divine message during my time in Shangri-La? No, because Shangri-La is a fake place. Did I find the pureblood Aryans? I don’t think so, but there was a blond-haired, blue-eyed European couple staying at the hostel. However, when I made the symbolic switch from the commode to the squat, something certainly happened within me, literally and figuratively. I think I realized that I’m beginning to de-exotify my situation here. What appears abnormal and strange is starting to become my everyday, not just in action, but in thought as well. I’m not abandoning my former, American self. I don’t want to do that, not ever. I like my American self. But, what I’m talking about isn’t voluntary. It’s just happening. At first, I had to get used to chopsticks, not showering for a week, brutal baijiu sessions, and drivers that round hairpin turns over 10,000 foot cliffs while smoking a cigarette and screaming into their cell phone. Now, it’s just life, I guess. Maybe it took a freezing cold toilet seat for me to put it all together. I came, I saw, I used a squat toilet on my own free will. That was my Shangri-La.

Simplified Chinese

“月”(yue) is the Chinese word for month. It also happens to be the word for moon. Month and moon are two of the more basic elements of any linguistic repertoire. If you don’t know how to say month or moon, you certainly cannot claim to speak said language. Yesterday, I was looking at the moon, simple enough. It hit me. Moon and month. At first I was excited, like a toddler who figures out that he can fit his legos together and make bigger legos. Then, I was a little embarrassed, like a toddler who figures out that he can fit his legos together and make bigger legos, that it took me three years of studying Chinese to make the connection. For those of you who, like me, are a little slow on the uptake:一个月(yi ge yue), meaning one month, also means one moon. So primal, so natural, so Chinese. Upon investigation, I’ve discovered that the month-moon connection is actually rather ubiquitous among many world languages (English included).

 

It’s often said that Chinese is the world’s hardest language to learn. Technically speaking, it’s probably much more grueling to learn a language spoken only by a 90-year-old widow who lives in a shack on a remote mountain in Tierra del Fuego and doesn’t know how to read or write. At least Chinese has the resources. Frankly, though, declaring Chinese as more difficult than French, Basque, or Cantonese (nine tones) is only partly acceptable. Learning to read and write is a monumental challenge. Intuitively, a pictographic language should be as easy as it gets. It should be just like, well, seeing. You see a tree, you know what it is. You see a Tyrannosaurus Rex; you know it’s a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Obviously, that’s not the case. Mastering, or even grasping, a pictographic language requires intense exercise of memory. English speakers need to get familiar with 26 letters, Chinese speakers need 3,000 symbols just to have a crack at the newspaper, let alone begin to attack Analects. But, that’s if you want to read and write Chinese. I do and I can, decently, but one thing at a time.

 

English is a means of communication. I say, “Hello, how are you?” you say, “I’m fine.” I say “balloon” and “calculator” and “plane” because that’s just what I say. You can go back to Latin and Vulgar Latin, and a ton of other languages that made English what it is today and understand the roots, but even those roots are just words. Chinese on the other hand is a story, a history, a guide to life, masquerading as a means of communication.

 

The Chinese word for computer is “dian nao”(电脑). The first character, dian, means electricity or electric. The second character, nao, means brain. So, in Chinese, a computer is not simply a compute-er, an object that computes, it is an “electric brain.” A movie is not simply a move-ie, a thing (picture) that moves, but rather a “dian ying” (电影), an “electric shadow.” A mustache is a “ba zi hu” (八字胡). “Ba” (八) being the character for the number 8,“zi”(字) meaning “Chinese character,” and “hu” (胡) meaning beard. So, if you’re from the Middle Kingdom, a mustache is a “beard shaped like the character for the number 8.” Once again, the reference point is “ba” (八), the character for the number 8. Looks like a mustache, doesn’t it?

 

Standard Mandarin Chinese has no plural nouns, no tenses, no verb conjugations, and no “am, is, are.” I doubt the world’s 1.4 billion Mandarin speakers are experiencing any deep FOMO-like sensations when it comes to the above constructions of speech. English speakers are so used to irregular language structures, that travesties like “went,” “mice,” and “I have swum” are essentially second nature. Think about past tense verbs. It almost feels like there are more “irregularities” than not. Took, ate, bought, did, sought, swam, ran. The past tense for “read a book” is “read a book,” which means that the word “read” in the preterit is both irregular in the sense that it lacks the suffix –ed, and irregular in its pronunciation. That said, without this linguistic injudiciousness on the part of our English forebears, we would be completely lacking for the classic “What’s black, white, and read all over?” gag. And that would be a shame.

 

Chinese has none of it. It’s also basically devoid of articles. No a’s, an’s, or the’s. The spoken words for he, she, and it are all the same. There’s also no word for hello, goodbye, thank you, happy, sad, and person. That’s actually not true, but Chinese is a language that cut the fat a long time ago.

 

That’s probably the toughest thing about moving from English, an overcomplicated language, to Chinese, a relatively straightforward one. You want and expect things to be there that simply aren’t. Try to speak English without articles: “I went to movies.” “I bought new car.” “She sells seashells by seashore.” It’s like one rolling newspaper headline. Try to speak English without plural nouns: “I ate three piece of bread.” How about no tenses: “Yesterday I eat three piece of bread.” “I just go to bathroom.” For some reason, it sounds primitive. It certainly doesn’t sound right. But, in every single case, the reader knows exactly what I’m talking about. If you tell me that you’re planning to do something tomorrow, why are you compelled to alter the verb tense to clarify? There isn’t really any necessity behind these constructions. Chinese is contextual. English unnecessarily spoonfeeds context. Learning English must suck.

 

Mandarin Chinese is not exclusively simplistic. For example, there’s an historical (“an historical” is an appalling phrase) emphasis on 成语 (chengyu), essentially Chinese proverbs. They are generally four character phrases that convey a grander meaning. It’s often said that solid knowledge of chengyu implies Mandarin fluency. My chengyu knowledge is weak. One of the first chengyu every aspiring Sinophone learns is 随俗 (ru xiang sui su). It’s typically translated as “When in Rome…” The direct transliteration is: 入-enter,乡-village, 随-follow, 俗-custom. “When you enter the village, follow the customs.” However, without the knowledge that this specific phrase is a chengyu with a specific meaning, it wouldn’t make sense in isolation. How about, 好久不见 (hao jiu bu jian). 好-very,久- long time,不-no, 见-see. That one even made it’s way across the Pacific. Another example. 十官九 (shi guan jiu tan). -ten-govern, -nine, -greed; corruption. You get the idea. There are thousands. Check out the link below for some important ones.

 

http://carlgene.com/blog/2010/07/20-actually-useful-chengyu-成语/

 

There are other idiosyncrasies that show up in Chinese, but I’ve never run into anything nearly as insufferably, painstakingly, gratuitous as say, the Spanish subjuntivo. In my experience, the most difficult aspect of learning Chinese—aside from writing of course—has been unlearning English. Deconstructing the aspects of language that I’ve come to take as a given. “I am tall!” “I am short!” You want to say it like that, no matter what language you’re speaking. You try to shove the words in with reckless abandon, over and over again. The to be verb has got to go in their somewhere, somehow. But, it’s a square peg in a round hole. Or more, accurately, it’s a peg without a hole. Over time, you get used to “I tall!” “I short!”

The most used word in the English language is, the. I used it three times in that sentence. I remember looking up the in the dictionary when I was a kid. I always got a kick out of it—the Merriams and the Websters of the world trying to define the, an extremely difficult and arduous word to describe (it almost always has the longest definition in any dictionary) without using the. That word in question does not even exist in Chinese. Instead of saying “Give me the ball,” You’d say “给我球.””Give I ball.” There’s no him, her, or me either. A word that the average English speaker probably uses once every three or four sentences is completely absent in Chinese. It takes a long time to accept the fact that the is gone for good. It’s very hard to let go.

 

I started studying Mandarin out of pure opportunism. China’s big and there’s a lot of money here. Good language to learn. Probably—no definitely—the best language to learn if you already speak English. For the reasons I’ve described, getting past Mandarin’s ground floor is exceptionally laborious. At once, you must completely dismantle your linguistic preconceptions. At once, you must learn a totally new form of script that in every way defies all you’ve learned about sounds and even shapes. Now though, I enjoy it. I luxuriate in it. It’s fascinating. It’s truly beguiling in its complete and utter avoidance of—insistence against, really—circumlocution.

 

Every time I learn a new word it feels like I already knew it. It’s almost too effortless. Mark Twain famously said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” That’s Chinese. It’s so simple and logical that it must have taken, well, millennia, to come up with and perfect. Learning Chinese I feel like a mathematician or a theoretical physicist. I imagine Phythagoreas finally reconciling a2+b2=c2 and saying to himself (in his retroactive Larry David impression), “Damn, that was pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty obvious.” A couple moments after I made the right-under-my-nose connection between moon (yue, 月) and month (yue, 月), I put together the equally patently obvious link between sun (ri,日) and day (ri,日).