The Wedding Invitation: A Curious Letter Comes to Town

I’ve been checking the post office every week or so. I take a van 15 minutes into town, do some errands, and pop my head in.

“Anything from America?”

“Nothing from America.” The bored woman tossing some bulky, beat up box labeled “FRAGILE” onto a scale tells me, without looking up.

I look at the stack of packages piled in the corner. Mostly TaoBao, probably.

“You sure? Nothing from someplace that isn’t in China?”

“Well, we do have something from Beijing.” She flings the “FRAGILE” box at the pile of packages.

“Yeah, but that’s in China.”

Yeah, but it’s pretty far away.”

“Nothing from USA!” A pudgy young guy comes in the back door, zipping up his pants zipper. He says the last three letters in English, of course.

            I’ve been waiting for something. I don’t know exactly what. My cousin asked me for my address and my address is this post office. It’s been about a month since he asked. I’m just hoping the thing, whatever it is, is a bunch of Reeses Cups and/or Reeses Pieces. That would be chill. Sometimes days go by when Reeses are all I think about. Rarely do my fantasies—sexual or otherwise—not feature some kind of interaction with chocolate.

Reeses-Minis

Fantasies

I keep checking the post office every time I go into town. But, nothing from America, nothing from Beijing. No chocolate.

“I’ve got something for you.” I open the WeChat message. It’s Brandon, one of my TFC colleagues who works in the town with the post office. Brandon and I are the only white foreigners for quite a ways.

Oh really?”

            A few minutes go by and a new message comes through.

“This came to me. For you. I think.” It’s a picture of my cousin Jake, and his fiancée, Lauren—dressed up all fancy. There’s a big bold, Baskerville-styled date on it and on the flip, some information in English regarding a wedding. A save the date card. No promise of Reeses included in the invitation. Fuck. Nonetheless, I’m happy for my cousin.

“So, are you gonna go?” I ask him.

Now, I don’t know exactly what transpired here. There are a few possibilities, some more exciting than others. But, this is what I’d like to believe happened: Sometime after my last check-in at the post office—an approximate five weeks since the save the date card left a mailbox in a little town in Upstate New York, USA—it arrives at the little town of Songgui, in Up-Province Yunnan, China. Once there, the bored woman sifting through and tossing into the dusty corner a bunch of TaoBao packages and Communist Party notices, chances to find the save the date invitation for my cousin Jake and Lauren’s wedding. At that point, she lets out a yelp, sending a package full of priceless Ming Dynasty-era ceramics crashing to the concrete floor. Upon hearing her scream, the pudgy guy, returning from the toilet, rushes into the room.

“Da. Fuck. Is. This?” She says, holding the invitation far away from her face.

Then the guy, who hasn’t zipped his pants yet, snatches the invitation from her.

“It appears to be a picture of two white people. They look to be of some importance, judging by the dress. Perhaps an advertisement for a diplomatic convention? Yes, that’s it. I can tell. And what’s this on the back? It’s English. My God!” He roars. “It’s all English.”

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 6.07.27 PM

Confusion

“Can’t you read it? Didn’t you tell me you could speak English? Didn’t you speak English to that foreigner last time? Didn’t you say USA to him?”

The pudgy guy zips up his pants and coughs, “Yes, of course, I can speak English. Come to think of it, this letter is written in French. I cannot read it. Anyway, no matter. It must be for that white guy. Let’s go deliver it to him.”

“But, who will watch the office?”

“No. Don’t you see? This letter—post card, matters of international consequence are surely riding on it. Time is a luxury we might not have. Close the shop.”

“But, wait! Aren’t there two white guys?”

“Absolutely not. There is the one at the elementary school in town. The teacher. He always comes in with strange questions about chocolate.”

“Well, OK. If you say so. But I thought one of them wore glasses.”

“No, he only wears glasses sometimes—come to think of it, I’ve noticed his Chinese is better when he’s wearing glasses. Funny how that works. Anyways, let’s move out.

                 The pudgy guy and the bored woman walk to Brandon’s school—five minutes from the post office—at a brisk pace.

“Where is the foreign teacher?” The woman poses the question, exasperated, to the security guard.

The guard lets out a formidable puff of smoke and takes his feet off of his desk, “No clue. Probably in class. What’s the deal?”

“We have this letter, umm, post-card. It regards international matters. Please see that it arrives to him immediately.”

“Yeah, alright.” The guard says, accepting the card. “I’ll find the foreigner.” He ashes his cigarette on the front side of the letter. The post office employees shudder and head back to the shop.

A few days go by. The security guard catches Brandon on his way off campus.

“Hey, Mr. USA. I got this letter for you. Supposed to be urgent. Something about international problems or something.”

Brandon freezes and goes white(r). Is it about my visa? Will I be deported? Will I spend the last 50 years of my life in the Gulag or whatever they do here?

            “Here.” The guard hands him the ashy letter, which now smells of grain liquor and has 3 or 4 cigarette burns across its face.

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 6.16.34 PM

Brandon and the security guard

Brandon regains color. Save the date. Loeb. And he looks at the picture and looks confused—wait a second. There are other white people?   

political-map-of-China

Advertisements

Education Inequity: The Village in the Valley

“Basically, it’s kind of like this for teachers: Your scores suck, they move you to a less ideal situation. So, let’s say you end up at one of the top schools in the capital, but you can’t hang. They’ll put you just outside the city where the classes might be bigger, the kids might be tougher, and your life will just be generally more inconvenient. Let’s say you screw it up again. You can’t improve the scores at that school either. They’ll move you further out, to kids with fewer prospects, and you might be a bus ride or two away from the city. The process repeats itself, until you’re the only teacher in the little village at the crest of the mountain, where everyone speaks deep dialect, the kids will never ever leave, you’re getting some rice and a piece of hog fat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and you’re two days down a rocky, windy, fog-shrouded, vomit-inducing mountain road from anything that resembles your old life.”

Kind of like the English professional soccer system, I thought.

img0677-hdr-5ae12af9

“Shit. So what happens when you screw it up at that school?”

“They just kill you. Nah, I’m kidding. Nothing. If you haven’t already, you’ll probably get your wits about you and get yourself out. Otherwise, I guess you’ll just stay at that school forever.”

“So, essentially, if you’re a bad teacher, your punishment is to go teach where they need good teachers more than anything.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much the story.”

“Man. That is fucked.”

“Such is the world we live in, no?”

I’m reclined under a bunch of palm trees in a tiny village in a valley. A mango tree peeks out from behind the palm fronds. Every once in a while a ripe green mango will thud to the ground. It’s sticky, sultry out here. The kind of hot that makes you think of porches and fans. Mr. Peng is about 5’1” with a frame of ample proportions. He’s got that kind of roly-poly physique that you can tell is a product of lifelong consumption of naturally delicious food—fresh mangoes, house-raised chickens, and lots and lots of rice. Mr. Peng’s largesse did not come from empty factory calories that maneuvered their way into all kinds of weird places and make the body look like some sort of depressed dumping ground for preservatives. He actually looks strikingly like the Buddha around his neck, but with a beautifully full head of black hair.

Mr. Peng and his wife are teachers at the middle school here in the village. They also run the local hotel, which is across a concrete parking lot from where we sit, eating fallen mangos, bayberries, and drinking some kind of mysterious booze that tastes like a mixture of nail polish remover, rice crispies, and urine. Or what I assume those things taste like. Mr. Peng’s family is obviously quite wealthy for this town. He shows me some pictures of his mother and father in-law on vacation in Singapore and France with one of those flag-waving tour groups. People here do not go to France.

IMG_0708

A nearby village across the Yangtze

Being a teacher in the village is backbreaking, he says. More than anything else, it’s the constant perception of hopelessness. Daily hopelessness mixed with long-term hopelessness. There are 1500 students at the middle school and 81 teachers. At first glance, that might not seem so crazy. We love the “student-teacher” ratio metric, and 18.5-1 isn’t all that bad. Keep in mind though, that “teacher” means a lot more than “teacher.” Responsibilities extend far beyond the classroom, in both a literal and abstract sense. These “teachers” are also security guards, administrators, and, ostensibly, parents. In that regard, 18.5-1 is actually insane.

Mr. Peng says his students are always fighting, “falling in love,” and smoking and drinking on campus. What can we do, he says. There aren’t enough of us. He consistently laments problems of space. The next morning, he takes me to the school.

“This is where the basketball court used to be.” He says, pointing to a pile of rocks and dust awaiting construction. “I can’t imagine there’s another middle school in all of Yunnan without a damn basketball court. How do you think that affects the kids? Why do you think they’re fighting and sneaking off with their girlfriends and boyfriends between periods and during class?” He looks at the rubble, slides a rock under his foot, and shakes his head. “But what can you do?”

The school is actually pretty peaceful, kind of pastoral. One might even call it serene. The plants are well manicured, and though there is that omnipresent construction of modern China, there aren’t really any big machines. Just a few guys in reed hats squatting around some craggy looking tools. It’s the weekend, after all. No one here but these workers and a few teachers assigned to “guard” the school until Monday. The buildings are stacked almost literally one on top of another.

Mr. Peng passes into the courtyard. “Last year when the education bureau came, the school picked a few teachers and told them what to say. The rest of us not to say anything. That was really difficult for me. But, they came back a few months ago and the school didn’t say anything. I took the chief aside to look at this passageway. It’s the only one that leads from the courtyard and the classrooms to the cafeteria.” He motions to a footpath between two buildings the width of maybe two-and-a-half average-sized doorways.

“1500 students.” That’s all he says and I understand. “And the chief was surprised, and a little shocked. But he really cared. A couple weeks later they made another passageway over on the other side. Everyone felt a lot more at ease after that.”

IMG_0548

Me and some students

We walk around the grounds. The school is nice, it really is. It doesn’t have that run-down one-room schoolhouse feel that one might want to associate with a “poor” school. Mr. Peng tells me that the situation is pretty awful for the students. Students spend three years to complete middle school in China. At the end there’s a test that decides whether they’ll go to the next level. Mr. Peng says that the amount of year three students is about half that of year one students. I don’t think I need to spell out what that means. Of that number, he says perhaps 40% will pass the test to go to high school. So, maybe a quarter of the ones that started will continue–to high school, that is.

IMG_0695

Gao Fu Cai with his pet goat

“English is the biggest problem.” English is historically given the same weight as Mandarin and math on both the high school and college entrance tests. There are very few countries that do this—treat foreign language like a core subject— and there are certainly a vast array of countries with infrastructure better suited to such a heavy emphasis on foreign language. For starters, the other language on the test—Mandarin—is more often than not basically a second or third language as it is. As I see it, the prominence of English is the single biggest flaw in the current system—the biggest contributor to inequity, but is, fortunately, slowly being changed. “Many of the kids just lie on the desks during class. What else can they do? They have to study English, but there is really no one to teach them. The English teachers, they work hard, but they don’t speak English. If they were here today—the kids—you’d be the first English speaker they’d ever met.”

Just think about that for a minute. That’s like trying to learn math from someone who doesn’t know the times tables. It’s not the teacher’s fault, though. They surely want nothing more than for someone to teach them how to speak better English. Compare and contrast with the big cities on the east side of the country, where there are armies of well-trained local teachers and plenty of foreigners ready to do the job. Mr. Peng said the highest English score at the Middle School last year was 82%. I cannot imagine what that kid did to get to 82%.

IMG_0593

There is an assumed inherent “fairness” in this system of standardized tests—in ours too. In any system with standardized testing. The wealthy kid in the city is getting the same questions as the poor farmer’s daughter. But, it’s not about the questions. The same question, of course, may mean very different things to you and I. The paths we take toward gaining proficiency to answer that question will certainly be wildly different. The test may not be designed to be unfair, but it will become unfair as time goes on. Same with the American system of loading up on extra-currics and being “well-rounded.” The system may not be designed to be unfair, but those with the ability and resources can make the system work for them. If tomorrow, by some glitch in the structure, the world’s most prestigious and lucrative job became car-washer, by the end of the next few decades, the next generation of car-washers would be, on the whole, minted from the upper reaches of society. It will always be that way unless the world really changes or something.

You can make your changes at the climax of the system. You can try to change the end results by changing the ­end result. But, frankly that is some stupid, stupid stuff. The end result is a framework for how best to prepare. You don’t level the playing field when the game is over, you know.

Education inequity is not something I think that much about. It doesn’t rule my life. I am a teacher at a school. I have to plan classes and grade homework. But, I do think about it sometimes. And, as a teacher, it is almost inconceivably sad.

I think that many people in positions of influence, wealth, privilege etc. hold, consciously or not, a feeling that those on the underside of the coin are somehow not entirely self-aware of their condition. This provides, again consciously or not, an alleviation of responsibility and guilt. This is super dangerous. It is the act of confusing disenfranchisement, voicelessness, and cyclical inequity with ignorance. And it is simply untrue. The moment where Mr. Peng was unable to talk about the problems at the Middle School was a rather in-your-face example of this. But, it’s all around. And the most voiceless in any society are kids. They are also the most impressionable, the most malleable. They are far and away the most prescient “return on investment.” If you want to change the flow of the cycle, school is really the only place to start. That is, of course, if you want to change it.

The strongest impression that I get whenever I think about inequality in education is pure and utter, purely, utterly pervasive faultlessness. It’s like a Syrian civilian whose bombed out house happened to be trapped in the middle of an ideological civil war or a poor Bangladeshi farmer whose home and livelihood has been washed away as an abstract upshot of far-off and endless industrial revolutions. There is nothing they can do. In fact, there is nothing they could do. It is not that they are not aware; it is that they are not allowed to speak. My students can study hard–that will improve their chances. It really will. Their situation is by no means hopeless. They can beat the odds. But there’s nothing they can do now about all the developmental landmines they’ll come across. Surely, that’s a responsibility that falls elsewhere.

“So that’s the school.” Mr. Peng notes as we leave through the gate. “What do you think?”

“Hard to say. I mean I understand everything you said. But, as a school, it looks nice.“

“It does look nice, doesn’t it.”

IMG_0517

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).