Friday, October 30, 2009

Milgram Experiment

Because I am chronically three minutes and 37 seconds behind the rest of the world, every morning I miss the bus and wind up riding shotgun in one of the Toyotavans that wait for me just off campus. The drivers charge me ten yuan, which is two kuai more than a taxi, and ten times more expensive than a bus. But it's well worth footing the bill for companionship and a complimentary lesson in Sichuanese, and the comfort that comes with knowing the Toyotavan cannot exceed thirty miles per hour, which gives me ample time to grab the "oh shit" handle prior to head-on collision.

This morning, I told the driver to wait while I hit up the ATM so I could pay him. It was raining, as it has been for the past month. Poised there with my fingers hovering over the keypad, some inner Pavlovian voice barked at me, some vague memory of a past trauma suffered at the hands of a rain-drenched Chinese cashbox, perhaps this very one - but I ignored it. "Please be entering your secret number," said the ATM. The instant my first digit met the first digit, the ATM dealt me an electric shock that made my Amish beard stand on end. A stream of religious personages and scatology flew out of my mouth. The security guards stared. I hobbled in a circle and slapped my thighs. The Toyotavan man tooted his horn. I returned to the machine and was shocked again. And again. Chinese pin numbers are six digits long. So, zap, I hit the "cancel" button and withdrew my card, which sent a current of not unpleasant energy coursing through my bones.

I jerked and jolted over to the machine across the street and waited in the queue for the girl ahead of me to finish. That she was not screaming and cursing throughout her transaction seemed to me to be a good sign. I inserted my card and zap, I flew away from the machine. I staggered back to it and zap. I snuck up on it from the side and zap. As a foreigner, apparently, I am a much better conductor than your average Asian coed. I needed something plastic to put between me and all that misdirected Chinese energy. But I had neither pen, nor lighter, nor tiddlywink. One of my students passed by, no doubt wondering why I looked like Gene Wilder on meth. I asked him for a pen. And thusly was the transaction completed and the taxi paid for. Now the problem was that I was five minutes late for class.

And oddly, trembling with static, my mind still lost somewhere in Tuesday night, I taught the best class of my life. It was my first run-through of a lesson I had dubbed "Poetry Slam." I began by reading the entirety of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot, and nearly succumbed to a crying jag when I came to the part about the coffee spoons. My students gave me a polite ovation. I asked how the poem made them feel.

"Depressed," offered a girl in the front row.
"Excellent! That's how it's supposed to make you feel. And why did it seem depressing to you?"
"Because it was too long."

Laughter. I laughed, too, though me and the ghost of Tough Shit Eliot were both wounded by the remark.

"Prufrock seems scared of some event in the future. I think it is coming soon," another girl said. "What is he scared of?"

"I don't know," I shrugged. "Probably death or something."

I had them read aloud and analyze poems by Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Carl Sandburg. One of the groups was reading The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes, and though the word "Negro" made them giggle, they loved the poem. One girl began to write her thoughts on the bottom of the page - "I am warm," she wrote - but I asked her to please write on another piece of paper, as these hand-written copies were the only ones I had.

When it came time for her group to slam Langston Hughes, her friend walked up to the podium and read him beautifully, with a sincerely oppressed tremolo in her voice.

"I've known rivers. Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers." She paused and her sad eyes searched the crowd. " ... I am warm."

I spent several minutes keeled over a desk until I'd laughed myself out.

After class, feeling awfully smug, I treated myself to a cigarette on the balcony. Across the way, I saw a girl leaning on the ledge with her head in her hands. She stayed that way for a long time. I wasn't about to abide any suicides on my watch, so I walked over and said, in Chinese, "Hey. What's wrong?"

She looked up. She wasn't crying.

"Are you an English teacher?"
"Yes," I said. "I am a laowai."
She looked me over.
"I know that," she said.

She wanted English lessons. She wanted to improve her oral English. She wanted a foreigner friend. And so on. Fairly certain that she wasn't a jumper, I wished her a good afternoon and ran off to my next class.

As I was walking out to the bus, I heard my name and saw her standing up on the balcony four stories above me.

"Can you catch?" she asked.
"Some things!"
She let a folded-up scrap of paper flutter down to me and I missed it. I plucked it up from the wet ground and hurried off to catch the bus. I was meeting an Italian for lunch.

One of my handlers from the university knew a girl who was married to an Italian. So she had arranged a foreigner playdate. It occurred to me that never in my travels had I ever met a Real Live Italian. Truth be told, I wasn't entirely convinced that they existed. But Fiero's story checked out. He was a chain smoker. He loved wine. He was old and fat and missing a few important teeth. He spoke little, probably because I was young and American. But when he did, his English, I thought, was better than my own: riddled with endearing errors and full of old world European depth and character.

There is always some conversational inertia when a European first meets an American. I'm not sure whether it's because the European has encountered unpleasant Americans in the past, or because the America we broadcast is so loud and schizophrenic and domineering that, as a European, you are no more inclined to talk to an American than you are to your television set. But over the years, I have developed an international charm that I didn't have before, and of course, it is easy for westerners to relate on matters pertaining to the experience that is China. So, by the time the fifth course had arrived, the Italian was waxing Chomsky on linguistic differences and Chinese etiquette.

"The Chinese have this way of making themselves disappear," he said, sucking a three-kuai cigarette through the gap in his front teeth. "When they are wanting to go, they stand up and say bye bye and they are gone!"
"This is not normal?" asked his wife.
"No! No. No!" Much gesticulating. "In Italy and in America, you must stay and shake hands and say, oh how I hate to leave, and make excuses and say goodbye to each person ten times."

Fiero and I agreed on the strangeness of Chinese teleportation. And we both agreed that we liked the Chinese way better.

I mentioned how, when I first visited China, I was curious as to how the Chinese typed. At the time, I said, I wasn't sure how it was even possible. Did they have 5,000-character keyboards that wrapped around you like a control panel? The Italian spit out a chunk of eggplant laughing and began spinning in his chair, pressing invisible buttons behind his back: "Dear ... mother ... I ... miss ... you ... so ... much!" The two Chinese girls tittered.

"But yes," the Italian said, composing himself. "This is problem with Chinese. You cannot have too many hieroglyphics because you cannot learn 300,000 hieroglyphics. So every symbol have fifteen or twenty meanings."
"Hence we have Chinglish," I said. "It's difficult to translate the openness of a Chinese sentence into the precision of English. So we have signs telling us, 'Please, gentlemen, how barbaric it is to shit on the floor!' And so on."

It is through conversations with Italians that you come across ideas you didn't know you had. While the Italian translated a verse of Dante's Inferno for me, I thought about Chinglish: I had always thought of it as bad English, plain and simple. It hadn't occurred to me before that there might be a deeper linguistic reason for Chinglish, but a fundamental difference in language seems to me, now, to be precisely the problem: each Chinese symbol has several possible interpretations, and as a reader of Chinese, you learn to choose the interpretations that make the most sense to you. But we have half a billion words in English, so the difference between a good writer and a literary hack is precision - putting the exact right words in the exact right places - and just about any English speaker, whether they can write or not, can separate good writing from bad writing. Chinglish is nowhere to be found on the quality spectrum, though it often reads like James Joyce at his best.

The four of us lingered for several hours. The Italian raged about the restaurant's interior design. "They construct this beautiful granite waterfall and then put it in the corner by the bathroom where it is invisible!" He asked whether I liked European beer and European coffee and I nodded emphatically on both counts. He invited me downtown to his European beer and coffee bar. And I trembled at the possibility of savoring a bottle or a cup of foul and bitter stuff without having to endure the formaldehyde hangover that comes ten minutes later.

I had to jet off to my Mandarin lesson, so I made my escape the Chinese way: "I'd love to stay and chew the fat, but bye-bye!" I caught the Number Five bus home and, on the way, passed a new restaurant whose logo was a black-and-white portrait of Saddam Hussein raising a finger in defiance. It reminded me of The Hitler Bar in Daejeon, South Korea - where the Third Reich comes alive! - with its balsa wood Messerschmitt BF109's rotating slowly on catgut cords dangling from the ceiling, the walls decked a la Applebee's with Afrikacorps caps, castrated Karabiner 98K's, framed photographs of The Fuhrer himself ... the smiling waiter clomping towards your table in his steel-toed jackboots, brown uniform decorated in Panzer Assault Badges and silver eagle patches ... the unabridged version of "Deutschland über Alles" warbling and crackling through the speakers in the bathroom. It is these warped glimpses of the West that remind you how far away from home you really are.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting! Very condensed real life in China. Reminded me of the place where I lived...