Sunday, November 08, 2009

The White Whale

On Saturday morning, I heaved myself out of bed, stuffed my books in a backpack, and walked over to the library. I downed a coffee on the way and had to pee something fierce by the time I got there, so I ducked into a bathroom, couldn't find any urinals, and made use of one of the squatters. On my way out, a girl stopped dead in her tracks and just about dropped her teacup at my feet. I turned and took an uncomfortably long time reading the sign above my head: "Woman ... bath ... room."

Getting into the teachers' reading room took some doing.
"You're a teacher?"
"Yes," I said, uneasily.
"Do you have an I.D. card?"
"No," I said, decisively.
"What th - why don't you have an I.D. card?"
"I'm new here."

The library troll granted me passage, but I had to register all of the books I was bringing in with me. My list looked like this:

1. The Norton Anthology of American Literature
2. Oxford English-Chinese Chinese-English Minidictionary
3. Peace Corps Language Manual - Mandarin
4. Las Muertas - Jorge Ibargüengoitia
5. Larousse Pocket Diccionario

I asked if I had to sign in my water bottle of Nescafe. The clerk shook her head, no.

And I remained in the library for six hours, writing Chapter One of Laowai de Riji: Diary of a Foreigner - my first stab at composing anything in Chinese more involved than "My name is Pan Da. I am an American," etc.

I told my tutor on the first day of class that I didn't want to study Chinese characters. I am a man who has yet to master the 26 letters of the English alphabet. At the time I judged that learning 10,000 Chinese pictographs was beyond my ability, and that we should focus on chit-chat. My tutor - in her Chinese way - showed up the following day with a pageful of symbols and asked me to copy them. So, coffee hands a-trembling, I did. We started with mama and papa, auntie and uncle, but even those four characters seemed impossible to mimic. After five minutes of concentrated effort, I would find that "papa" had somehow flipped itself mirrorwise on the page, which would send my tutor into a giggling fit.

But a month later, I find myself writing short essays in a script that was Greek - nay, Chinese - to me a month ago. I'm not bragging, here. I am indebted to my tutor, who knew better than I what a laowai can accomplish when he's paying 900 kuai a month.

After my day in the library, I went home and watched an overdubbed version of The Matrix. I'm not such a big fan of the film, overdubbed or otherwise, but I sat there in the dark with my notebook, scribbling down any and all words I recognized but didn't know. And in so doing, I acquired a pretty decent working vocabulary in the field that interests me most: bullshit philosophy. I then watched ten minutes of a BBC documentary about the Space Race before I realized it was overdubbed in Cantonese, which is probably why I couldn't understand a word of it.

I returned to the library this morning and studied for four hours. Although there is much to be said for whooping it up with the locals and learning 600 words for the male anatomy, mastering a language is a profoundly unsexy process, one that involves rote memorizing a lot of phrases that you have little use for and absolutely no interest in knowing: to invest in the stock market, to wait in line, and so on. I remember such-and-such foreign friend in such-and-such foreign country explaining to me why he'd never bothered to learn such-and-such foreign language. It's easy, he said, just use gestures. If you want a plunger, make a plunging gesture. If it's toilet paper you need, make an ass-wiping gesture. It seemed like a very apelike way to live, but I suppose it is one means of survival. That said, I am committed to avoiding pantomime at all costs and, if I am able, I would like one day to communicate my nest of weird western ideas to the Chinese in their own language.

This evening, I showed up early to class and played ping-pong with the wall until my tutor arrived and sat down to dissect my first journal entry. There were the expected syntax errors. But what surprised me was that she wasn't so much critiquing my grammar as much as she was trying to correct my writing style.

"Your writing is very," she paused and made a bouncy gesture with her hands. Desultory? Scatterbrained? I understood. "I don't see what the third and fourth sentences have to do with the first two sentences."

My first paragraph went as follows:
"In China, there are good days and bad days. On a good day, I am invisible, nobody seems to notice me. My students are excited to practice their English. I remember all of my new Chinese words and my tutor (Wendy) is happy with me. On a bad day ... "

She understood the sentences individually, but couldn't see why they were linked together into a paragraph. I tried to explain myself: good days consist of invisibility, good students, good Mandarin classes. The next paragraph is about bad days, which consist of ... but she didn't follow.

"You are talking about people not noticing you, and then you're suddenly talking about your English classes."

At that point, I had to laugh out loud. The beast had come out into the open. The problem was not my grammar or even my writing, but the way I organized my thoughts: in order to write Chinese, I am going to have to learn to think like the Chinese. Events which seem sequential and orderly to me make no sense whatsoever to my tutor. And so it's back to the drawing board for me, back to the library with my harpoon and nautical maps and a bottle of instant grog to keep me company on my tireless pursuit of the White Whale: avast! there she blows! -- there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Mandarin!

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