Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Death of a Neuron

I open the door and set my backpack on the floor. Then, grinning impishly at my Chinese tutor, I announce, "The Panda is arrived!"

"No!" she shouts.
And so it begins.
"'The Panda is arrived' is wrong," she says. "You should say 'The Panda has arrived!'"

I nod and sit down. My tutor slides today's offering across the table, an article about the perils of job seeking in China, and she tells me to read it. I squint and I squint, to no avail.

"Sorry, teacher," I say meekly, "but I've never seen any of these words in my life."
She laughs.
"What? You don't know the word 'job-hopping?'"
"Ah. No."
"You don't know the verb 'to establish?'"
"'To fall behind?'"
I shake my head. She huffs and shuffles through her papers. My ignorance has once again disrupted her lesson plan.

"Okay," she says. "Job-hopping is tiao cao. To establish is cheng li. To fall behind is luo huo. How do you say job-hopping?"
"Um. Ching ... chong?" I squeak.
"No! How do you say establish?"
"Chong ... ching?"
"No! How do you say fall behind?"
"Ah. Tiao cao."
"No, no, no!" She sighs. Clearly, I am a lost cause. "Okay, write tiao cao."
"But I don't know how."

She writes this on a scrap of paper:

I write this:

"No! That is wrong. Like this."
She writes.
"Like this?"

"No! Like this."
"Aha! Okay. So like this?"

"No, no, no!"

Over the course of an hour, I manage to stumble my way to the end of the article. Questions ensue.

"Why can't young people find jobs in China?" my Chinese tutor asks in English.
"Because there are too many young people and not enough jobs," I rattle off in Mandarin.
"No! That is wrong!" she shouts, again in English. "It's because there are too many college graduates and not enough jobs!"

I blink.

"Why do young people want to live in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai?" she asks.
"Young people want to live in big cities because their hometowns have ... " I reach for the word but can't find it. "Wait. I know this one. Their hometowns have ... have ... wait, I've got this. Their hometowns have -"

And though only a couple of seconds pass in realtime, in braintime those seconds are an eternity in which my brain cells are waging an epic struggle against my chronic forgetfulness. A single neuron unfurls her tendrils, they go waggling out into empty brainspace. Her sexy little axon snakes this way and that, beckoning one of her nearby suitors. A few nanoseconds later, she has wooed the handsome Chinese neuron who lives next door. He unfurls his tendrils, they go waggling out into empty brainspace. She reaches for the Chinese neuron and he reaches for her, and for an instant, it's the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: all those terminal buttons on the point of touching, almost, not quite, just one ... nanosecond ... more -

"To fall behind!" shouts my tutor. "Luo huo!"

I cringe. There is a burst of static, then my mind shuts down completely. Then a dull ache sets in.

"Ah. Luo huo," I murmur to myself. "Of course. Luo huo. Their hometowns have fallen behind."

The hardest part of learning Chinese in China is not the language. In fact, most foreigners are struck by the elegant simplicity of Mandarin: no conjugations, no plurals, no articles, no genders; he and she and it are all the same word; tense is implied by context; and if you happen to live in Sichuan, those ordinarily pesky tones are mostly irrelevant, because the locals speak a creole of dialect and the proper Mandarin they learn from watching so much damned television. Mandarin is surprisingly easy, and like most languages, it comes naturally after a while. What appears linguistically daunting at first becomes second nature after you've played with the language long enough. But Chinese is not a language one can tackle by oneself, so it is necessary to find a Chinese Virgil to shepherd you through the 36 Chambers of Mandarin Hell. And that, by far, is the hardest part of learning Chinese in China: finding someone who can lead you through those 36 chambers without roundhouse kicking you in the brain so many times that you are forced to leave the monastery altogether.

Thus far, my experience with the aforementioned Chinese tutor has been overwhelmingly positive. She works hard and she is technically well-qualified to teach a laowai like me: as an undergrad, she studied Teaching Mandarin as a Foreign Language. She bought me a bottle of rice vodka at the end of my first semester, bought me a cat-themed writing notebook for Christmas, lent me her copy of the Dao De Jing indefinitely. All things considered, she is one of the very few people in Nanchong who treats me like a human being. But she remains Chinese, and she teaches accordingly.

A couple months ago, I borrowed another book indefinitely - this time from the Peace Corps - named The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently ... and Why. Despite flipping through its pages for close to an hour, I couldn't find the quote I was looking for, so this will have to do:

Western parents constantly require their children to do things on their own and ask them to make their own choices. ... The Asian parent makes the decision for the child on the assumption that the parent knows best what is good for the child.

If a young American child is struggling to unlock the front door, her father will watch her fumble with the keys until she figures it out herself. If an Asian child is caught in the same predicament, his mother will cut in and say, "No, like this," and unlock the door herself. This is the classic example everyone bats around in China, but I don't know enough about children to confirm or deny whether or not it is true. Nevertheless, it does point toward a fundamental difference between Eastern and Western education. In the West, we learn by trial and error and mostly error. In the East, teachers tell their students what to do, every step of the way. This persists through college and beyond. If I give my Chinese college students an activity to work on independently, chaos ensues. If I lecture at them for ninety minutes, the universe is in perfect order.

So I don't fault my tutor for her teaching methods. I can't fault her for being Chinese. All and all, I am ridiculously lucky to have found her. Many of my friends study with Christian fundamentalists, or Sichuanese college girls who can't even speak Mandarin. But eight months ago, on a rainy night in October, my phone rang for the 1.3 billionth time - yet another anonymous number - and I have no idea what inspired me to answer my tutor's call. But if I hadn't, I'd probably be studying Mandarin with the duckhead vendor on Feng Dun Road.

Thankful as I am for having met my tutor, the way in which she teaches me does more harm to my neurons than good. She practices her English most of the time and laughs at my Chinese. I never went to Catholic school, but my tutor raps me across the mental knuckles with a steel-tipped ruler every time I screw up. She assumes, like many Chinese, that the Chinese writing system is an alphabet, easily decipherable by even the most foreign of foreigners - when in reality, you can comprehend a new Chinese character no better than you can recognize the face of a complete stranger. That's Blake Johnston from Sandpoint, Idaho. Whaddaya mean you don't know him?

I am a man who earned a D minus in Handwriting on what was otherwise a valedictorian sixth grade report card. Even today I am inclined to write my letter E's backwards, and when I read my own journal entries from several months ago, I can barely make out what I was blathering about. So in those early days of Chinese class, I told my tutor that I did not want to study writing, that I wanted to focus on conversational Mandarin. In the weeks that followed, we plunged headlong into the depths of writing and vocabulary, and in the rare moments that I could summon the courage to speak, my words were swatted down with the steel-tipped rulers of No! and Wrong! And so it goes.

In the meantime, my Sichuanese has improved a great deal, mostly from the ten kuai taxi lessons I receive on the ride home from the Jack Bar. The other day, my cabby was a young dude in a silk suitcoat, and when I told him to take me to Xi Hua Shi Fan Da Xue Xin Qu, he shivered all over and giggled. Then he hooted.

"Ooh-wee! Your Chinese sounds so good!"
"Where, where?" I asked in my modest way.
"Everywhere," he said.

He asked me how much money I made every month. I told him. He shook his head and suggested that I look into a different line of work.

"Well," I said, "it's hard for college graduates to find jobs in America. I've been job-hopping for several years now. Our economy's really fallen behind."
"Ooh-wee!" the cabby hooted. "Job-hopping! Fall behind! Your Chinese is really fantastic!"
"Where, where?" I asked again, and blushed a bit.

The cabby drove and I rode. And meanwhile, in braintime, all my drunk neurons unfurled their tendrils, extended their axons and gave each other high-fives. Despite the best efforts of China and its brewing companies, my neurons yet live.


W said...

Hi Keith,

I want to tell you I really enjoy your posts. I found your blog a few months ago while searching for Peace Corps blogs, since I'm getting ready to teach ESL as a PCV myself. You do a really good job illustrating the challenges of existing as a perpetual foreigner (even when the foreign-ness comes down to physical appearance alone), and I liked your musings on wanderlove. Your English has held up much better than other expatriates'. Anyway, I just thought I'd tell you that I recommend your blog to my friends whenever it seems appropriate to do so.


Keith Petit said...

Hi Warren,

Thanks for the kind words! Writing can be a real pain in the ass sometimes, but when it comes down to it (and perhaps this is cheesy of me to say) it is for my readers that I keep writing, especially those of you who are about to find yourselves in a predicament similar to my own! Where will you be serving, out of curiosity?


Warren said...

PC told me I'll be leaving for eastern Europe in September, which I think suggests Ukraine or Macedonia (probably Ukraine based on the number of PCVs sent there).